Other possibilities include Anwar al Awlaki, whose followers have carried out several high profile attempted attacks in recent years.
Yet, there's one figure who hasn't quite made the headlines in the US who may be in a position to take over al Qaeda. He's a former Pakistani commando known as Ilyas Kashmiri.
An elusive figure who often wears heavily tinted aviator glasses, Kashmiri remains at large and active in plotting new attacks against the West, U.S. officials say. It was Kashmiri who, according to U.S. officials, was the key figure behind a suspected plot for multiple attacks in European cities, patterned after the 2008 Mumbai terror strike, which led to a widely publicized State Department travel advisory in October.While Kashmiri was originally trained and worked closely with the Pakistani military and security services, he turned on Pervez Musharaf's regime and even targeted him in assassination attempts. His cadre of terrorists have carried out attacks in Pakistan, India, Kashmir, and plotted against the West, including a plot against Jyllands Posten for their running cartoons depicting Mohammad.
While Ayman al-Zawahri remains the “presumed” successor to bin Laden, the longtime al-Qaida deputy is deeply unpopular in some circles and his elevation is by no means guaranteed, a senior U.S. official told reporters this weekend. If al-Zawahri doesn’t make it, Kashmiri may emerge as the dark horse in the ensuing power struggle, the official told NBC on Monday.
“His star has been on the rise for the last several years,” said the official. “He would have to be on the al-Qaida short list.”
Kashmiri was at one point a member of the Pakistani military, serving as a commando in a Special Services Group that was once tasked with training Afghan mujahedeen to fight the Soviets.
He was later reassigned to train Kashmiri fighters against the Indians, but broke from the Pakistani army and joined a terrorist group — called Harakat-ul Jihad-i-Islami, or HUJI (“Movement of Islamic Holy War”) — that has been closely aligned with al-Qaida.
So far, U.S. officials have remained tight-lipped on whether they have found evidence in bin Laden’s compound that shows direct contacts between the now deceased al-Qaida leader and Kashmiri. But hints of such links — and of Kashmiri’s interest in mass casualty terror plots — are contained in U.S. court documents.
He's known to use the frontier provinces of Pakistan as his base of operations.
The US labeled him a specially designated global terrorist in August 2010, which puts him in the same ranks as the ex-bin Laden and Zawahiri. The US has attempted to carry out UAV airstrikes against him in the past, and have come close on several occasions, particularly after capturing several of his top henchmen.
Depending on who to believe, one would think that al Qaeda had three spheres of operation - the strategic, military, and ideological - with bin Laden, Kashmiri, and Zawahiri running each, respectively. However, with bin Laden's death and the cache of intel gathered from his compound in Abbottabad, that thinking may have been sorely misguided. It would appear that bin Laden was in command and control over most operational and strategic thinking of the terror group, using couriers to shuttle information between him and his subordinates.
Kashmiri, being central to these discussions, therefore may be in a better position to assume the leadership role. He's got the military credibility among the Taliban and knows his way through the region better than others, including Zawahiri. He also benefits from knowing Pakistani tactics and probabilities - where and how the Pakistanis operate their security forces and military. That's invaluable in evading capture or being struck in Pakistani airstrikes.