As speculation about al Qaeda's leadership succession mounts in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death, the answer to who will assume control next lies in the organization's rules and regulations -- like those of any good corporation. Written and reviewed by a group of senior leaders, some of whom may now be poised to assume new positions within al Qaeda, they provide insight into how this critical transition will be handled, and will factor heavily into who is selected to move up the leadership ladder.
Al Qaeda's organizational protocols (some earlier versions of which are available at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point) make clear that a chain of succession exists. In the event of the capture or death of al Qaeda's emir (leader), power automatically transfers to the deputy emir (currently Ayman al-Zawahiri), with a executive council vote to follow -- confirming his permanent election to the position, or selecting another leader. If both the emir and his deputy are killed or captured, power temporarily goes to the head of the executive council (again with a vote following to confirm his leadership or select another member). The executive council is compromised of the emir and his deputy, as well as senior leaders from al Qaeda, usually those who head up a section in the organization, such as the military, security, or administration branches. It is a small body, probably now comprised of only a handful of members, although it once numbered around 10 when al Qaeda was safely ensconced in Afghanistan. It is from within this body that a new emir would be chosen if Zawahiri and his new deputy were to be killed or captured or otherwise deemed unfit to lead.
For good reason, al Qaeda has not pushed many of the leaders who hold these positions into the limelight. It has instead built its image around those already holding a public profile, while introducing some new second-generation leaders, such as Abu Yahya al-Libi, who are charismatic and can call others to join in the fight while defending the organization from criticism.
However, while the remaining first-generation figures may not exactly be household names, the United States now presumably has a wealth of new intelligence and operational notes garnered from bin Laden's compound in Abottabad, Pakistan. Already, U.S. intelligence assets will have compiled substantial information on senior figures and their possible locations, communications practices, and potentially, their operational taskings. But exploiting this information won't be so easy. Following bin Laden's capture, al Qaeda will have gone into communication lock down. The requirement of a vote electing Zawahiri to the leadership position, which requires risking communications at a particularly dangerous time, is thus likely to be dispensed with.