Ayman al-Zawahiri's killing: What next for al-Qaeda?
As soon as the president of the United States announced that his country had killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, a lively debate began about his, and al-Qaeda’s, real importance.
Zawahiri’s death had been announced before, with false news making the rounds in 2020. At the time, analysts said what they now debate: that Zawahiri was not much of a battlefield leader, and was largely 'off-the-grid' and disconnected from the commanders of al-Qaeda's regional terrorist groups.
These groups independent of the centre - in Iraq and Syria, the Maghreb, and north and west Africa - did not rely on Zawahiri for tactical direction, and he was less well equipped than Osama bin Laden, his charismatic predecessor, to provide the focal point and rallying cry for a distinct ideology of jihad.
In his last years, Zawahiri was an itinerant figure, known to the outside world largely through his media output. In the year preceding his death, Zawahiri had released much more material than was typical. The topics were ordinary, however, as was his treatment of them.
"There's no danger of al-Qaeda collapsing after al-Zawahiri's death. His loss does not seriously disrupt the operational functioning of al-Qaeda"
So banal had Zawahiri's media output become that some analysts of jihadist movements joked that, rather than killing the leader of al-Qaeda, the United States had in fact assassinated an 'elderly Egyptian podcaster'.
“There’s no danger of al-Qaeda collapsing after al-Zawahiri’s death. His loss does not seriously disrupt the operational functioning of al-Qaeda,” Kyle Orton, a terrorism analyst, told The New Arab.
“Moreover, al-Qaeda is embedded within the jihadist network controlled by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency - indeed, one of its elite units, the Haqqani Network, was protecting al-Zawahiri - and that network remains in control of Afghanistan, albeit contested with the Islamic State.”
This view is widely shared.
“Ayman al-Zawahiri’s death will not materially impact al-Qaeda. It’s difficult to think of any group that has been appreciably set back by the assassination or death of its senior leadership, be it the Taliban, Islamic State, Hezbollah, the Houthis, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, or anyone else, and al-Qaeda is no different,” Oved Lobel, a policy analyst at the Australia Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), told TNA.
“In fact, this is especially the case with al-Qaeda, because it’s unclear how much concrete influence, if any, ‘al-Qaeda Central’ in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran has over the global network, particularly after losing control over its Iraqi and Syrian branches,” Lobel added.
The more pertinent questions, most analysts suggest, are who will succeed Zawahiri, how will al-Qaeda's regional affiliates react, and whether Zawahiri's location - at the heart of Taliban-controlled Kabul, in an apartment formerly occupied by USAID - describes a new relationship between al-Qaeda and the de facto Taliban government there, its internal affiliations with the Haqqani network, and its sponsors in the Pakistani ISI.
“When it comes to al-Qaeda’s relationships with other jihadi groups around Afghanistan and Pakistan, I have argued elsewhere that despite paranoia and personal rivalries, there is no analytically useful means of determining where the ISI (Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence) ends and al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and an alphabet soup of other groups in Kashmir and elsewhere, begin, whatever their bureaucratic structure on paper,” said Lobel.
According to the analyst, this is an integrated network that shares personnel and resources revolving around Pakistan’s security services, with al-Qaeda acting as its foreign operations arm.
He added that referring to these groups as allies or proxies, or even distinct groups, obfuscates the bigger picture, such as the idea that the Taliban could be separated from or even turn on al-Qaeda.
“Therefore, it should be no surprise that Zawahiri was assassinated in the centre of Kabul in a house that reportedly belonged to an aide to the so-called ‘Haqqani network’,” Lobel said.
“In the first place, there is emphatically no such thing as a ‘Haqqani network’, as the Haqqanis themselves have stated and even cursory analysis would reveal. The Haqqani family has long been the fulcrum of this entire ISI network, with the Taliban’s de facto leader Sirajuddin Haqqani allegedly being an official member of Al-Qaeda.”
Nonetheless, who will succeed Zawahiri is a subject of keen - if rather detached - speculation. Sayf al-Adl is considered the primary candidate; he is a former military man, a member of the al-Qaeda military council, and a pioneer and trainer of some of al-Qaeda's terrorist tactics.
“There is a debate over who precisely will succeed Zawahiri, with analysts pointing out that the potential leaders like Sayf al-Adl in Iran might not be able to command loyalty due to suspicion of the Iranians, while alternative leaders located outside Al-Qaeda Central also might not be able to command loyalty of the entire network. If a leader in Africa or the Middle East did take charge, this would be an entirely new world for Al-Qaeda,” said Lobel.
“While this is academically interesting speculation, in practical terms it probably doesn’t matter. Al-Shabab in Somalia will continue its insurgency, as will al-Qaeda across the Sahel and in Yemen, relatively unaffected by leadership deaths locally or globally. Israel can also kill any al-Qaeda leader in Iran, as it did Abu Muhammed al-Masri in Tehran two years ago, so the entire debate about who takes over is moot: the next leader will be killed either by the US if he's outside Iran or by Israel if he’s inside.”
Any successor will be initially judged on how many of al-Qaeda's affiliates and close allies pledge loyalty to him, swearing an oath of allegiance called a bay'a. If al-Qaeda central is as moribund as some suggest, some affiliates will choose this moment to let their allegiances lapse.
The question of loyalty is more than formal. Al-Qaeda central has not been a significant battlefield presence for many years.
"Any successor will be initially judged on how many of al-Qaeda's affiliates and close allies pledge loyalty to him. If al-Qaeda central is as moribund as some suggest, some affiliates will choose this moment to let their allegiances lapse"
“Al-Qaeda as a whole has been out of the transnational terrorism game for over a decade, and that is also unlikely to change, both because of the success of US and allied counterterrorism operations as well as tactical decisions made by the group. They currently have no external operations capability and there’s little reason to believe they can develop one,” said Lobel.
“While two attacks have been linked to al-Qaeda – the Charlie Hebdo murders in 2015 and the Pensacola shooting in the US in 2019 – the details suggest neither was directly planned by Al-Qaeda, with the circumstantial evidence suggesting the former was actually linked to the Islamic State,” he added.
“The group incites against the West, much like the Islamic State, and may be able to connect with an unaffiliated jihadist here and there to conduct a small attack, but its ability to centrally plan and execute attacks like 9/11 is likely gone for good. That won’t change regardless of Zawahiri’s death or who succeeds him.”
Many al-Qaeda affiliates and allies have spent some of the past decade actively distancing themselves from both Zawahiri and al-Qaeda. In Syria, numerous groups split off from the former al-Qaeda affiliate, the al-Nusra Front.
Some of those groups founded Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which maintains that it is unconnected with al-Qaeda, while yet more founded Hurras al-Din, which - despite being closer to al-Qaeda in approach - claims the same.
Partly, this is self-preservation - with al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) leaders receiving special attention from the United States recently, and plenty of them being killed. But it is also ideological and practical. If al-Qaeda is increasingly irrelevant, local leaders will take to the fore, and local concerns will predominate.
It would take a strong personality - stronger than Zawahiri’s - to reunify these disparate strands.
“The bay’a issue is the most fraught question around the succession: since it is personal, will the affiliates accept the new leader and re-pledge their allegiance? Al-Qaeda does have some difficulties here because the people most directly next in line are in Iran, and it is—to put it no higher—not a good look to have a leader living under the protection of a supposed strategic and ideological enemy state,” said Orton.
"Al-Qaeda central has not been a significant battlefield presence for many years"
“The other obvious alternatives are affiliate leaders: this would be something new for al-Qaeda, and it is possible other affiliates would object to a non-al-Qaeda ‘Centre’ leader being appointed. Still, it should not be overstated; whatever awkwardness there is in the short-term, al-Qaeda will find a way.”
And regardless of local turmoil, the outlook is auspicious for international terrorism.
“In Africa and Yemen, the conditions are favourable to jihadism generally. The Iranian aggression in Yemen through the Houthis will perpetuate that war and give al-Qaeda endless opportunities to exploit the conflict dynamics,” Orton said.
“In West Africa, the Russian activities to displace the French with pliable military regimes has created a security structure that, as with almost everything related to the Russian military, doesn’t work. In East Africa, there is little danger of stability coming to Somalia any time soon, so that will continue to be a playground for Al-Shabab. Al-Zawahiri’s removal obviously has no direct impact on these local situations,” he added.
In his speech announcing that the United States had killed Zawahiri, US President Joe Biden largely claimed that this was justice - long delayed, but now delivered. He considered this also a vindication of his withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, and the over-the-horizon mission the United States maintains it can run in that country.
But if Zawahiri was able to live in close quarters with the Taliban and the Haqqani network, this does not suggest Afghanistan can be kept perpetually free of terrorist leaders and training camps in this fashion.
It also raises new and more concerning questions of control and initiative, something al-Qaeda, its Taliban allies, and affiliates across Africa could answer with more violence and greater subversion.
James Snell is a writer whose work has appeared in numerous international publications including The Telegraph, Prospect, National Review, NOW News, Middle East Eye and History Today.
Follow him on Twitter: @James_P_Snell