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Image: Ayman al-Zawahri
Reuters
Ayman al-Zawahri is seen in a still image taken from video uploaded on a social media website on June 8. The U.S. is offering a $25 million reward for any information leading to his capture or conviction.
NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 6/16/2011 8:48:55 PM ET 2011-06-17T00:48:55

The United States is just as determined to hunt down and kill al-Qaida's new chief as it did his predecessor, Osama bin Laden, Obama administration officials said on Thursday.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Ayman al-Zawahri, al-Qaida's longtime second-in-command and now its top leader, does not have the "peculiar charisma" and operational experience of bin Laden, who was killed by U.S. forces last month.

But Gates and other U.S. officials said al-Qaida remains a threat despite its loss of bin Laden, who was considered the driving force behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

"We should be mindful that ... al-Qaida seeks to perpetuate itself, seeks to find replacements to those that have been killed and remains committed to the agenda that bin Laden put before them," Gates told reporters.

"So I think he's (al-Zawahri's) got some challenges but I think it's a reminder that they are still out there and we still need to keep after them," he said.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made clear that al-Zawahri — an Egyptian-born ideologue — remains high on the U.S. list of hunted militants.

"He and his organization still threaten us. And as we did seek to capture and kill — and succeed in killing — bin Laden, we certainly will do the same thing with Zawahri," Mullen told reporters.

Al-Zawahri has taken over the leadership after the killing of bin Laden, the group announced online on Thursday.

"The general leadership of al-Qaida group, after the completion of consultation, announces that Sheikh Dr. Ayman Zawahri, may God give him success, has assumed responsibility for command of the group," the Islamist website Ansar al-Mujahedeen (Followers of the Holy Warriors) said in a statement.

Story: New al-Qaida leader mentored Osama bin Laden

'No surprise'
The White House said al-Zawahri's rise had been expected since he had long served as bin Laden's deputy, but the State Department said it "barely matters" who the new leader was, contending the violent Islamist group's influence was on the wane.

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"It's neither surprising nor does it change some fundamental facts," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters. "Al-Qaida's ideology is bankrupt. The fact is the peaceful movements for change are the future of the region and al-Qaida is the past."

U.S. officials, in a rhetorical campaign that seemed designed to undercut the new al-Qaida leader, also raised doubts about whether al-Zawahri had the personality to emulate the unifying role played by bin Laden. Bin Laden was the network's founding figurehead and became a global symbol of Islamist militancy despised in the West but admired by some in Muslim countries.

"He hasn't demonstrated strong leadership or organizational skills during his time in AQ," a senior administration official said. "His ascension to the top leadership spot will likely generate criticism if not alienation and dissension (within al-Qaida)."

Gates said he understood there was also some suspicion among militants because al-Zawahri is Egyptian.

The brains behind much of al-Qaida's strategy, al-Zawahri vowed this month to press ahead with the group's campaign against the United States and its allies.

His whereabouts are unknown, although he has long been thought to be hiding along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The U.S. is offering a $25 million reward for any information leading to his capture or conviction.

Al-Zawahri, who turns 60 on Sunday, has long brought ideological fire, tactics and organizational skills to al-Qaida. The surgeon by training was first behind the use of the suicide bombings and independent terror cells that have become the network's trademarks.

His fanaticism and the depth of his hatred for the United States and Israel are likely to define al-Qaida's actions under his tutelage. In a 2001 treatise that offered a glimpse of his violent thoughts, al-Zawahri set down al-Qaida's strategy: to inflict "as many casualties as possible" on the Americans.

"Pursuing the Americans and Jews is not an impossible task," he wrote. "Killing them is not impossible, whether by a bullet, a knife stab, a bomb or a strike with an iron bar."

He has appeared in dozens of videos and audio tapes in recent years , increasingly becoming the face of al-Qaida as bin Laden kept a lower profile.

'He's a politician'
He and bin Laden first crossed paths in the late 1980s in the caves of Afghanistan, where al-Zawahri reportedly provided medical treatment to bin Laden and other Islamic fighters battling Soviet forces. Their alliance would develop years later into the terror network blamed for America's worst terror attack in its history.

Interactive: Al-Qaida timeline (on this page)

Noman Benotman, a former associate of both bin Laden and al-Zawahri's, told msnbc.com that the new leader would likely seek to capitalize on unrest the Middle East.

"I think he will try to politicize al-Qaida," the former commander in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) said. "He's a politician but a violent one."

Benotman, who now eschews violence and is a senior analyst at British counter-extremist think tank Quilliam, predicted that al-Zawahriwould try to reorganize al-Qaida, establish new cells and adjust tactics.

However, the organization's goals are likely to remain the same.

"They believe they have a mission to mobilize (all Muslims) when the nation fails to do that," Benotman said.

U.S. intelligence officials have said that some al-Qaida members find al-Zawahri to be a controlling micromanager who lacks bin Laden's appeal.

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"Bin Laden was regarded by his militant followers as a very charismatic leader," Professor Paul Wilkinson, of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St Andrews University in Scotland, told msnbc.com. However, al-Zawahri was seen as "more of a strategist" who helped al-Qaida develop expertise in urban terrorism.

Journalist and author Peter Bergen told NBC News after bin Laden's death in May that al-Zawahri would likely have trouble succeeding the popular leader.

Video: Analyst: Bin Laden not easily replaceable (on this page)

"When you join al-Qaida you don't swear an oath of allegiance to al-Qaida," he said. "You swear a personal oath of allegiance to Osama bin Laden. That's why replacing him is going to be very difficult.

"He's not well-liked or well-regarded, even by people in his own Egyptian sort of jihad group,"
he said.  "He's regarded as a divisive figure."

According to Bergen, many people who knew bin Laden said they loved him even if they disagreed with his methods.

"No one describes feelings of love for Ayman al-Zawahri," Bergen added.

The Associated Press, Reuters and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.

Video: Gates: U.S. will 'keep after' al-Qaida

  1. Closed captioning of: Gates: U.S. will 'keep after' al-Qaida

    >>> to another story in the news this morning, today's announcement read like a press release from a fortune 500 firm announcing a change from the top to the number two guy. in this case it was al qaeda . the top job was vacated of course when bin laden was killed. jim miklaszewski has more on the new man in charge and new signs of the tattered relationship these days between the u.s. and pakistan .

    >> reporter: nearly seven weeks after osama bin laden was killed by u.s. commandos, the new leader was picked. outgoing defense secretary robert gates says zawahri is no bin laden .

    >> i think it's a reminder that they are still out there and we still need to keep after it.

    >> reporter: as bin laden 's deputy, zawahri was the brains behind the terrorist bombings of two u.s. embassies in africa, the attack on the u.s. cole and the attack on the world trade center and the pentagon. in a video released last week, zawahri called for revenge for the killing of bin laden . the most immediate challenge however, mending relations with pakistan , seriously embarrassed by the secret raid that killed bin laden . in retaliation, the pakistan shut down three -- the centers provided critical intelligence by the movement of taliban fighter who is crossed into afghanistan to attack american forces . gate s argued, that's -- the military cannot afford to lose.

    >> the lines of communication are critical for our operations in afghanistan .

    >> and the white house announced today, that general david petraeus , the top u.s. command never afghanistan has provided obama with several options for these u.s. troops withdrawals set to begin next month and the president could announce his decision as soon as next week.

Photos: The compound

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  1. Pakistani boys while demolition takes place on the compound where Osama bin Laden was slain in 2011 in the northwestern town of Abbottabad on Feb. 26, 2012.

    More photos from Abbottabad one year after Osama bin Laden (Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. An aerial view shows the residential area of Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was found and killed by U.S. commandos. (Asif Hassan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A general view of the town of Abbottabad, May 6. Bin Laden was living in a large house close to a military academy in this garrison town, a two-and-a-half hour-drive from the capital, Islamabad. (Khaqan Khawer / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Supporters of Pakistani religious party Jamaat-e-Islami rally to condemn the killing of bin Laden, in Abbottabad on May 6. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A Pakistani woman photographs her daughter on May , at a gate of the compound where bin Laden was caught and killed. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. School girls pass by armed Pakistani policemen guarding the sealed entrance to the compound in Abbottabad, May 5, in which bin Laden had been living. (MD Nadeem / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Part of a damaged helicopter rests in the compound after U.S. Navy SEAL commandos killed bin Laden, May 2, in a photo made available on May 4. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Boys herd sheep past the compound where U.S. Navy SEAL commandos killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad May 5. (Akhtar Soomro / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Pakistani security officials arrive at the Osama bin Laden compound in Abbottabad on Wednesday, May 4. (Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Local residents gather outside a burned section of bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad. (Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A Pakistani police officer gestures at a checkpoint along a road leading to a house where bin Laden was captured and killed in Abbottabad. Area residents were still confused and suspicious about bin Laden's death, which took place before dawn on Monday. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Pakistani children look out from a high vantage point at bin Laden's compound on Tuesday, May 3. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Pakistan army troops remove canvas screens from outside the compound's house. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Neighbors and news media gather around the compound, right, after authorities ease security around the property. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A satellite image, taken June 15, 2005, shows the Abbottabad compound, center, where bin Laden was killed in on Monday. (DigitalGlobe via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A Pakistani soldier secures the compound. (T. Mughal / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. The compound is seen in flames after it was attacked early May 2 in this still image taken from cellphone video footage. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Part of a damaged U.S. MH-60 helicopter lies the compound. The helicopter was destroyed by U.S. forces after a mechanical failure left it unable to take off. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A still image from video obtained by ABC News shows blood stains in the interior of the house where bin Laden was killed. (ABC News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Aerial views released by the Department of Defense show the area in Abbottabad in 2004, left, before the house was built, and in 2011, right. (Department of Defense via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A graphic released by the Department of Defense shows the compound where bin Laden was killed. (Department of Defense via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Pakistani soldiers and police officers patrol near the house, background, where bin Laden had lived. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. The hideout of bin Laden is seen the day after his death. (Farooq Naeem / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Students look toward the compound from a nearby religious school in Abbottabad. (Faisal Mahmood / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Pakistani security officials survey the walls of the compound where bin Laden was killed. The outer walls were between 10 and 18 feet high. (MD Nadeem / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Pakistani soldiers stand guard near the compound May 2. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Boys collect pieces of metal from a wheat field outside bin Laden's house, seen in the background, on May 3. People showed off small parts of what appeared to be a U.S. helicopter that the U.S. says malfunctioned and was blown up by the American team as it retreated. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Pakistani security officials stand guard at the main entrance to the compound on May 3. (MD Nadeem / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. An image from video seized from the walled compound of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, and released by the U.S. Department of Defense, shows Osama bin Laden watching TV. He is said to have spent his last weeks in a house divided, amid wives riven by suspicions. On the top floor, sharing his bedroom, was his youngest wife and favorite. The trouble came when his eldest wife showed up and moved into the bedroom on the floor below. (Department of Defense via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
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    Above: Slideshow (29) After the raid: Inside bin Laden's compound - The compound
  2. Image:
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    Slideshow (81) After the raid: Inside bin Laden's compound - World reaction

Timeline: Al-Qaida timeline

  1. Above: Timeline Al-Qaida timeline
  2. BIN LADEN
    Rahimullah Yousafzai / AP
    Timeline A timeline of Osama bin Laden's life

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