Ayman al-Zawahri, the newly appointed chief of al-Qaida, lacks the charisma and operational skills of Osama bin Laden as a terror leader, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday.
But he said the selection of al-Qaida's former No. 2 to take bin Laden's place is a reminder that the terror group is still out there and must be pursued.
"Despite having suffered a huge loss with the killing of bin Laden and a number of others, al-Qaida seeks to perpetuate itself, seeks to find replacements for those who have been killed and remains committed to the agenda that bin Laden put before them," Gates told Pentagon reporters, at what was billed as his last scheduled press conference before retiring at the end of the month.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said al-Zawahri's move to the top was no surprise, and the new leader will get the same attention from the U.S. that bin Laden did.
"As we did both seek to capture and succeed in killing bin Laden, we certainly will do the same thing with Zawahri," Mullen said.
Bin Laden was killed in a raid by U.S. Navy SEALs deep into Pakistan on May 2, scoring a treasure trove of computer data and intelligence.
Al-Zawahri, an Egyptian doctor, is known as a divisive figure who won't be the same kind of powerful inspirational leader that bin Laden was.
Gates and Mullen said they read little into the fact that it took seven weeks for al-Qaida to name a successor.
Gates quipped, "It's probably tough to count votes when you're in a cave."