Al Qaeda’s leader dead: What’s the future of the organization?

Al Qaeda leader's death: What’s the future of the organization?

30 | 08 | 2022


The disappearance of Bin Laden’s successor happens when the group is at an all-time low, but it will not dissolve anytime soon

En la imagen

Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri during an interview with Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir, in November 2001 [H. Mir]

Ayman al Zawahiri, leader of Al Qaeda and direct successor of Osama bin Laden, was killed on July 30, 2022, at 6 am local time, via a drone strike conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Afghanistan’s capital city, Kabul. The US President Joe Biden confirmed two days later the death of the so-called ‘second emir’ and classified the operation as a “precision strike” that caused no civilian casualties. After 11 years at the forefront of the terrorist organization, Al Zawahiri’s reign of terror comes to an end.

Al Zawahiri came from a family of doctors; in fact, he worked in his native Egypt as an ophthalmologist. Alongside his medical career, since he was young, he was linked with various Islamist movements. He founded in 1979 the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, terrorist organization that assassinated former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, main responsible of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. Al Zawahiri was one of the arrested following the president’s assassination in October 1981.

After three years in prison he escaped to Pakistan, where he joined the Afghan Jihad against the soviets. In Afghanistan, he met Osama bin Laden and Abdullah Azzam, with whom he co-founded Al Qaeda in 1998. Al Zawahiri became the main responsible of expanding and internationalizing the terrorist organization. The Taliban regime sheltered him in Afghanistan. It was during this time when he became the principal mastermind of some of the most notorious terrorist attacks performed by Al Qaeda, including the one against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September 2001.

After Bin Laden’s death, and thanks to the influence he racked up during his years at the forefront of the organization, he became the second emir of Al Qaeda. Nonetheless, Al Zawahiri was not as publicly known as Bin Laden once was. The Egyptian emir was not as charismatic as his Saudi predecessor.

With the rise of Daesh (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), Al Qaeda lost its influence, and Abu-Bakr al Baghdadi rose as the main jihadist figure of cult instead of Ayman al Zawahiri. The Egyptian emir lived a life of secrecy in Afghanistan, where the Taliban protected him until his death.

Having both succumbed to American military power, the assassination of Al Zawahiri was orchestrated and executed differently to that of his predecessor as head of Al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan on May 2, 2011, at 1 am local time by Navy SEALs Team Six. The operation, codenamed ‘Neptune Spear’, was carried out by several coordinated military and intelligence groups of the US. It was primarily led by the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) coordinating SEAL Team Six. Robert O’Neill was the SEAL that delivered the ‘coup de grace’ on the first emir.

Ayman al Zawahiri, on the other hand, was killed on July 30, 2022, at 6 am local time, via a drone strike. The operation was conducted by the CIA, and the ‘coup de grace’ was delivered from afar by a drone that dropped two AGM-144 Hellfire missiles targeting the exact position of Al Zawahiri and killing the second emir.

Compared to Operation ‘Neptune Spear’, the operation to kill Al Zawahiri was more surgically conducted; the family of Ayman did not suffer any casualties, whereas SEAL Team Six also killed four other individuals beyond the target: his adult son Khalid, a courier by the name of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, his brother Abrar, and Abrar’s wife, Bushra. Besides, no American life was directly put in harm’s way to execute the operation against Al Zawahiri. This shows the efficiency of the latter operation in comparison with the former. Moreover, it shows that the use of drones for the future counter-terrorist operations may be the way to go in order to avoid unwanted casualties.

Al Zawahiri’s legacy

Al Zawahiri’s legacy on Al Qaeda cannot be overlooked. As said previously, he wasn’t as charismatic as Bin Laden; in fact, Bruce Hoffman, director of the Georgetown University’s Center for Peace and Security Studies, described Zawahiri in 2011 as a leader with a “prickly and dogmatic” reputation. However, he also declared that, despite not having the Saudi’s “mellifluous voice”, Al Zawahiri had, however, “street credit”, and believed that the Egyptian emir would become an “even stronger leader than bin Laden.”

Actually, Hoffman’s prediction did not hold, mainly due to three reasons:

First, the Egyptian was a man of thought, not actions. Al Zawahiri is one of the five jihadist intellectuals that signed the 1998 fatwa “Jihad Against Jews and Crusades”, a statement/manifesto by the World Islamic Front which is considered by the 9/11 Commission Report in 2004 as the foundational document declaring the creation of Al Qaeda. In it, Bin Laden, Zawahiri, and three other scholars claimed that America had declared war against Allah. Moreover, in the manifesto, Al Zawahiri declared that “to kill Americans (…) is an individual duty for every Muslim.”

If we compare the most notorious attacks performed by Al Qaeda before and after Osama bin Laden’s killing in 2011, we observe that, under the leadership of the Saudi terrorist, the organization was much more active and fiercer than it was under the direction of Al Zawahiri. After 2001, the pressure exerted to Al Qaeda was immense. The US, alongside other western countries, initiated the ‘War on terror’, and the main objective of the Bush Administration was to eliminate the terrorist organization led by Osama bin Laden. The results of the pressure exerted by the West were visible and tangible. If we compare the most notable attacks by both emirs, we will observe how the acts of terrorism and casualties per attack decreased by a significant margin. Bin Laden’s most notorious attack was 9/11, in 2001, while the most remembered one by Al Zawahiri was the ‘Charlie Hedbo’ shooting, in 2015. The former killed around 3,000 civilians, the latter took a meager—though equally regrettable—toll of 12 casualties.

By 2020, the second emir had practically become a hermit. He became distant and his activity consisted of writing books and essays with little to none videos of himself delivering speeches. Al Zawahiri did not even commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11, neither did he address the fact that American troops withdrew from Afghanistan.

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Diagrams showing the attacks on the World Trade Center, September 11, 2001 [FEMA]

Second, the rise of Daesh. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant was created in 1999, but it did not gain global prominence until 2014, when the great cities of Mosul and Raqqa were captured, and with the Yazidi genocide, which occurred in August 2014. Sinjar, located in northern Iraq, was the stage of the massacre carried out against the Yazidis, an ethnic minority of Iraq. Daesh forced men to convert to Islam; those who refused were executed. Young boys were forced to become child soldiers; women and girls were enslaved. Around ten thousand Yazidis were killed in just days. The self-proclaimed worldwide caliphate became an unrecognized state with its own territory. This factor, and the propaganda campaign it carried out in social media, attracted Muslims and radicals all over the world to the newly founded caliphate.

Daesh became the most known terrorist organization of the 2010s, partly with some help from the West. For example, two of their leaders, namely Al Zarqawi and Al Baghdadi were made known thanks to fiction movies like ‘American Sniper’, where Zarqawi was portrayed, and media documentaries, that made viral the speech that Al Baghdadi’s delivered in Mosul on January 19, 2014, in which the leader of Daesh went as far as challenging Al Qaeda and its leader, at that time Ayman al Zawahiri. Said challenge happened as a consequence of the following factors. Firstly, Daesh exponentially grew in 2013 due to the new leadership of Baghdadi (appointed as caliph in 2010) and to a series of prison breaks that grew fresh yet experienced jihadists of the Iraq war on the battlefield and the chaos that ensued during the Syrian civil war. Secondly, the US withdrawal from Iraq in December of 2011 opened a new wave of jihadism, and Daesh capitalized on the opportunity created by the lack of authority. Lastly, the constant disputes between Al-Nusra (Al Qaeda’s ally) and Daesh evolved into a constant state of war.

Contrary to popular belief, Al Qaeda and Daesh are not allies. In fact, they are in opposite sides of the Syrian civil war. In 2014, they started fighting each other. Charles Lister, analyst for The Middle East Institute, declared in 2017 in his study ‘Al Qaeda Versus ISIS’ that: “The lines of differentiation were drawn, and both movements sought to out-compete the other on the local and international stages.” The fact that Daesh was succeeding against the Al-Nusra front attracted western radicals to join the new leader of international jihadism.

Third, the decentralization of Al Qaeda. As a consequence of the pressure exerted by the US, Al Qaeda has had to develop new strategies to maintain its activity. The creation and expansion of jihadist groups in the Maghreb, Sahel, Levant, Middle East, Caucasus, Central Asia, Indian sub-continent, and Indonesia has been a phenomenon that grew exponentially after 9/11. Now, however, it’s in decrease. Al Qaeda of Iraq (AQI), of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria (JN), Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin in Mali (JNIM), and Al Shabbab in Somalia are some of the affiliates that still pledge alliance to Al Qaeda. These branches, still in operation today, are coordinated by their commands, represented by their own leaders. However, compared to core Al Qaeda, these affiliated groups are usually poorly managed and, occasionally, uncommunicated by the central direction of the main organization. A study made by Sarah Bomfim with the title ‘Al Qaeda: from Hierarchical to Decentralized Organization’, showed that, as Al Qaeda became more decentralized, its average civilian casualties decreased. As already mentioned, during Osama bin Laden’s leadership, Al Qaeda’s most notorious attack was the one on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, whereas, during Al Zawahiri’s era, the most remembered one was the shooting at ‘Charlie Hedbo’. This clearly shows that Al Qaeda’s ambition during the period of the latter’s leadership decreased by a significant margin, as it became more decentralized.

The hierarchical organization created in 1998, very centralized, was very methodical and spent years planning every attack to produce the maximum possible effect on the target audiences, thus resulting in a large number of civilian casualties. Moreover, said terrorist strikes had a significant propaganda effect to recruit radicals from the West that were keen to join the organization. As already mentioned, the number of mortal victims decreased after the elimination of Osama bin Laden in 2011. In addition, a comparison of the number of suicide attacks before and after that year, reveals a 22% decrease in occurrence, which may indicate that many jihadists active in the different franchises of a heavily decentralized Al Qaeda were more ready to die for Osama bin Laden than for their ‘regional emir’.

Possible successors

The killing of Al Zawahiri begs the questions of what Al Qaeda’s response may be, who may succeed the deceased emir, and what may be the future of the terrorist group. As said, Al Qaeda is a loosely decentralized organization, which complicates Al Zawahiri’s succession. The main difference between the succession of Bin Laden and Al Zawahiri’s is that the latter was the former’s right hand; hence, the succession was straightforward. The whole organization knew that the next emir was bound to be Zawahiri. The Egyptian, however, did not have a right hand like the Saudi had.

Several strong names inside the branches of the organization are very viable candidates to succeed Zawahiri. The first we ought to mention is Saif al Adel, one of Al Zawahiri’s most trusted lieutenants, a compatriot and someone with close ties with Iran. The fact that he is currently on the watch list of the Iranian regime, makes him a vulnerable candidate. Another individual worthy of consideration is Abd al Rahman al-Magrebi Al Zawahiri’s son-in-law and manager of Al Shabab. He has close ties with both Iran and Pakistan, traveling between these countries with ease.

Their credentials notwithstanding, the ties both candidates have with Iran are problematic within the dogmatic intellectual aspect of the organization. Considering that all branches of Al Qaeda have their own autonomy, a new leader whose strategy is aligned with Iranian interests may not sound appealing for the regional emirs.

The next leader of Al Qaeda will have to confront several short-term challenges. To begin with, as we have concluded that Al Zawahiri’s strategy has not been effective in maintaining and growing Al Qaeda, the next emir will have forcibly to tackle this issue. Doing so will likely mean operating a complete shift in Al Qaeda’s strategy. If this task is, in and of itself, complicated, the biggest problem the organization is facing is that it is currently undergoing an identity and lack of influence crisis.

The first crisis is a product of Al Zawahiri’s passivity and of his decisions to remain silent and letting Daesh self-proclaim themselves as leaders of International Jihadism. The third emir will have a very difficult time solving this issue. This is because the image of Al Qaeda is directly related to the image and preaching of Bin Laden and shifting it to an organization whose main partner is Iran will, inevitable, confuse its adepts. Moreover, considering that the main base of operations of the core organization is in Afghanistan, now controlled by the mostly Sunni Taliban will create a conflict of interests with their new associate Shia Iran.

Nonetheless, if Al Qaeda does not elect the Al Adel or Al Maghrebi, and instead decides that the organization should not associate with Iran, the most viable option is Abu Ubaydah Yusuf al Anabi, the current leader of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The north African leader is an Algerian national born in 1969. He was the one appointed to replace the first emir of AQIM following his killing by French forces in Mali in June 2020. Al Anabi is one of the most respected regional leaders inside of the organization. He was the one who pledged his alliance to Al Zawahiri when he was appointed as second emir in 2011. If he was elected third emir, the organization would maintain its current Zawahirist line. Alex Thurston, expert in Islam in northwestern Africa at the University of Cincinnati said that “Anabi is better known (…) as a propagandist and pseudo-cleric than as an operational figure.”

The second crisis is the consequence of the military expansion of the Khorasan branch of Daesh’s (ISIS-K). In January 2022, the United Nations Security Council determined that ISIS-K had risen to, approximately, 4,000 active fighters from the some 2,200 it had in 2021. This increase was motivated by the reestablishment of the Taliban in power in Kabul, which resulted in the immediate release of several thousand individuals that were held in prison. The main objective of ISIS-K is “to position itself as the chief rejectionist force in Afghanistan and to expand into neighboring Central and South Asian countries.” At present, ISIS-K has surpassed Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Numerous terrorist attacks have been carried out by Daesh; however, virtually none by the core organization of Al Qaeda. The U.S. Department of State offers $10 million for information leading to the identification or location of ISIS-K leader Sanaullah Ghafari (aka Shahab al-Muhajir). Although Zawahiri was the main objective of the US, the main threat to peace in Afghanistan is Ghafari, hence making ISIS-K the organization of Central Asia with most influence.

A difficult resurrection

As for the future of Al Qaeda, even a renewed leadership will make a resurrection of the group very difficult. Its decentralization has affected the organization in many ways. The pressure of the US has damaged the foundations of the organization. Even though a new emir will probably be a hardline ‘Bin-Ladinist’ and will attempt to bring back the old essence of the once feared organization, a resurrection of Al Qaeda seems unlikely. Although the group is at an all-time low, nobody doubts that the organization will not dissolve anytime soon.

The future relations between Daesh and Al Qaeda will remain belligerent. The first reaction by Daesh was to celebrate the death of the second emir. In fact, messages like “the clown is dead” or “the dog has perished” have been shared by Daesh’s supporters” said Jack Harrington and Jared Thompson, associates of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). At the same time, Daesh keeps have been mocking the future candidates of Al Qaeda. For instance, “Saif the fool” (referring Saif al Adel), was the title given by Daesh in a message demanding the proof of life of Zawahiri back in September 2011.

In the end, Al Qaeda has been relegated to the role of secondary actor within the international system. Al Zawahiri’s reign as second emir will probably be remembered by Al Qaeda’s supporters as a downgrade compared to Bin Laden’s. The Western powers will have to sit and wait until the first message of the third emir, without forgetting the unpredictable nature of international terrorism.