The emir of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has not made any public statements since September 2014. His now 11-month long absence is unprecedented. Next month will be a key test for al-Zawahiri: the anniversary of 9/11—a milestone he has spoken out on for years.
Al-Zawahiri was chosen by Osama bin Laden to be his successor. A veteran of 35 years of terrorist plotting, the Egyptian has legitimacy and experience. But he has a lot of other baggage too. He is a poor speaker, prone to ideological fights, and lacks bin Laden’s charisma.
Al-Zawahiri designated Yemeni Nasir al-Wuhayshi—leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula—to be his successor in 2013. Then this June, al-Wuhayshi died in a drone attack in Yemen. Al-Zawahiri did not give a eulogy for his deputy.
Then, the Afghan Taliban belatedly announced its leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, the self-appointed ‘Commander of the Faithful,’ had died. The Taliban’s office in Qatar put the date of his death at April 23, 2013, but provided no reason for why it had not been announced publicly for over two years. The Afghan government said he died in a hospital in Karachi, Pakistan. The Taliban said Mullah Omar had not left Afghanistan in the past 14 years—”not even for a day to go to Pakistan or any other country.”
The Taliban are determined to cover up the fact that Mullah Omar was a “guest” of the Pakistani intelligence service since 2002, hidden at their safe houses in Quetta and Karachi. Admitting the truth would undermine the Taliban’s claim to be nationalist holy warriors fighting NATO’s ‘Crusader’ army. It would also deeply embarrass Islamabad. Jihadi circles sometimes said Mullah Omar lived after 2002 in “the land of the dirty”—a play of words on Pakistan, which means “the land of the pure” in Urdu.
Yet Mullah Omar was a key ally of al-Qaida. Both bin Laden and al-Zawahiri repeatedly pledged their allegiance to Mullah Omar, beginning well before 9/11 and repeated often since. Mullah Omar mourned bin Laden’s death by SEALs in May 2011. Al-Zawahiri repeated his pledge of loyalty to Mullah Omar as late as last year. Did he know Mullah Omar was dead?
Other major jihadi leaders like Hafez Sayed, the head of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), have publicly eulogized Mullah Omar as a hero of the global jihad. LeT even held a vicarious funeral to mark his passing. The LeT is very close to Pakistan’s spies. It attacked Mumbai in 2008 in an operation closely connected to the intelligence service known as the ISI.
Three of al-Qaida’s franchises in Syria, Yemen, and the Maghreb issued a joint eulogy. They praised Mullah Omar for refusing to surrender bin Laden to America after 9/11. It was a dramatic illustration that the al-Qaida network is still a united global jihad.
But not a word from al-Zawahiri. A blank slate. No statement for his deputy’s death or his titular leader. His organization is still active in Pakistan. Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent, the group al-Zawahiri lauded last September in the last message he made, is actively plotting attacks. Pakistani security officials recently killed one of its commanders in Baluchistan. Other senior al-Qaida operatives have also been killed in Pakistan recently.
So what accounts for the silence? Why is al-Zawahiri missing in action? Of course, only he and his closest circle know for sure.
Perhaps al-Zawahiri is ill and his health precludes any public role. Like Mullah Omar, he may be incapable of activity or even dead. But there is no hint of that in the jihadi Web sites or chatter.
More likely his silence is deliberate. He is biding his time and focusing on his own security. Al-Qaida has often chosen to out wait its enemies and go underground, biding its time. When confronted with a furious Saudi attack on its infrastructure in the kingdom in 2006, it retreated into Yemen—only to reemerge as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in 2009. It adopted a similar tactic in Iraq, reemerging from the surge after the Americans had gone home. Al-Zawahiri knows the Americans are leaving Afghanistan next year; perhaps he is just waiting for them to go home.
September 11, 2015 will be an interesting test. Normally since 9/11, al-Qaida delivers a major message to mark what it calls ‘the Manhattan Raid.’ Often al-Zawahiri comments on the state of the global jihad. If he remains silent this anniversary, it will be very unusual.
I think this is in many ways the worst possible outcome that would have been visualized during those peace talks leading up to Doha — that the US is withdrawing, but without an end to the war that is continuing in Afghanistan between the two sides there.