White House: Qaeda chief al-Zawahiri in over his head, "armchair general"

The White House Thursday dismissed al Qaeda's new leader as "an armchair general with a 'soft' image" who has "nowhere near the credentials that Osama bin Laden had."

Those stark words by a senior administration official provided the Obama administration's preliminary assessment of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the longtime bin Laden deputy who was announced Thursday morning as the successor to the terror network's deceased founder, CBS Radio News White House correspondent Mark Knoller reports.

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"He hasn't demonstrated strong leadership or organizational skills during his time in al Qaeda or previously while in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad," the official said, speaking on background to provide the administration's view. "His ascension to the top leadership spot will likely generate criticism if not alienation and dissention with al Qaeda.

"The bottom line is that Zawahiri has nowhere near the credentials that Osama bin Laden had."

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Hours after President Obama announced bin Laden's death May 2, his counterterrorism adviser John Brennan bluntly described al-Zawahiri during a White House press conference as not having the same qualities that helped bin Laden run the organization.

"The number two, Zawahiri, is not charismatic," said Brennan. "He has not been -- was not involved in the fight earlier on in Afghanistan, so -- and I think he has a lot of detractors within the organization. And I think you're going to see them start eating themselves from within more and more."

The senior administration official's assessment Thursday had a similar tone.

"Unlike many of al Qaeda's top members, Zawahiri has not had actual combat experience, instead opting to be an armchair general with a 'soft' image," the official said. "No matter who is in charge, he will have a difficult time leading al Qaeda while focusing on his own survival as the group continues to hemorrhage key members responsible for planning and training operatives for terrorist attacks."

Indeed, previous reports about al Qaeda, based on files taken from bin Laden's Pakistani compound during the raid by U.S. Navy SEALs, depicted the terror network as being anything but an organization with operatives working in lockstep. Per The Associated Press:

Like an email chain showing office politics, with various members of the hierarchy weighing in and sometimes back-stabbing each other, the communications show different officials vying for the boss' attention and working the system, the officials said.
  • Alex Sundby

    Alex Sundby is an associate news editor for CBSNews.com