A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, Major General William Caldwell, said al-Masri would be a likely candidate to take over the leadership of Al-Qaeda in Iraq after al-Zarqawi's death.
"Al-Masri's intimate knowledge of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and his close relationship with [al-Zarqawi's] operations will undoubtedly help to facilitate and enable them to regain some momentum if, in fact, he is the one that assumes the leadership role," Caldwell said on June 15.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq has been considered the driving force in the insurgency that arose after Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003. The group has tried to destabilize Iraq by attacking U.S. and other coalition forces and has been the leading Sunni Muslim antagonist in the sectarian violence aimed at Iraq's majority Shi'ite population.
Links To Al-Zawahri
Caldwell said al-Masri was a Muslim militant for at least 24 years before he joined the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahri, who is second in command to Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. Later, al-Masri trained with explosives in Afghanistan.
In Iraq, Caldwell said al-Masri was responsible for bringing foreign fighters over Iraq's porous border with Syria. But Caldwell said it's not clear how much control al-Masri would be able to wield over Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
"Al-Masri's ability to effectively exert leadership over the Al-Qaeda cells remains unclear," he said, "and how many Al-Qaeda senior leadership members and Sunni terrorists that may attempt to exert their influence and take charge is unknown at this time. We do know that he espouses -- in open press statements -- the same tactics of attacking and killing innocent civilians."
Al-Masri may also be hindered by his suspected Egyptian nationality, according to Frank Cilluffo, a former special assistant to U.S. President George W. Bush on counterterrorism. Cilluffo told RFE/RL that many Iraqi insurgents are suspicious of foreigners, and even if some follow al-Masri at first, their loyalty in the long run is less certain.
"What is significant is that he is allegedly an Egyptian, not an Iraqi," Cilluffo said. "And I think that that does question his sustainability in the long term. I think that it [al-Masri's accession to the leadership of Al-Qaeda in Iraq] could lead to a spike or a rise in short-term terrorist activity, but I'm not sure if its sustainable over the long haul."
Exerting Central Control?
Cilluffo said he believes al-Masri's accession to leader may have been influenced by al-Zawahri, who may want to impose some kind of central control over Al-Qaeda's Iraqi operations. He points to correspondence between al-Zawahri and al-Zarqawi that was seized recently by coalition forces and that indicates there was friction between the two men.
Those communications suggest that al-Zarqawi was acting too independently for al-Zawahri's -- and bin Laden's -- liking. At one point, al-Zawahri even told al-Zarqawi that mosques should be off-limits for his suicide bombers.
Cilluffo said this kind of exchange indicates the broad differences between al-Zarqawi, who wanted to focus attacks on U.S. operations in Iraq, and al-Zawahri, who wanted to keep Al-Qaeda's focus on strikes on U.S. soil and elsewhere in the world.
Making al-Masri the new leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq will help the group centralize control over its Iraqi operations, Cilluffo believes. "I do think you were seeing a split between al-Zarqawi and al-Zawahri, basically trying to identify the future of the Al-Qaeda organization," he said. "So I think that it [naming al-Masri as leader in Iraq] is an attempt to rein in a little more command and control. But most of the movement that we're seeing is going to a leaderless movement, and here [in Iraq] I think it is the franchising of Al-Qaeda."
Al-Masri's elevation to power underscores the power his predecessor enjoyed, Cilluffo noted. Al-Zarqawi was so respected among Muslim militants that he was able to maintain his independence away from central Al-Qaeda leadership.
In fact, Cilluffo said, it may be too late for al-Zawahri -- and even bin Laden -- to reassert their influence, not only in Iraq, but elsewhere in the world. These two men may be the inspiration for attacks against the West, he said, but they no longer control which targets get hit. Those decisions are now made by individual cells made up of Al-Qaeda members. Whether al-Zawahri will know what they're doing may be the first test of his leadership.
AYMAN AL-ZAWAHRI is regarded as Al-Qaeda's No. 2 authority. Although al-Zawahri is lesser known than Osama bin Laden, some observers say the deputy is just as powerful as the chief....(more)