Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri may be dead or at least appears to be “completely off the grid,” according to journalist and veteran jihadi-watcher Hassan Hassan. These reports come at the same time as the killing of another very senior al-Qaida leader, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, in Tehran, reportedly by Israeli agents at the behest of the United States.
If Zawahri is dead, where will al-Qaida go next and what kind of movement will Zawahri’s successor inherit?
Zawahri, the long-time Egyptian terrorist leader and Osama bin Laden’s number two, assumed control of al-Qaida after U.S. Navy Seals killed bin Laden in 2011. Zawahri has been praised as a “mastermind” and criticized as a leader (I was on the latter side of the debate). Terrorism analysts Colin Clarke and Asfandyar Mir note that Zawahri avoided the trap of trying to build a state, like ISIS did, and so avoided destruction at the hands of the U.S. military and its allies. They also point out that he has preserved relationships with many key affiliates around the world and, as ISIS’ flame dimmed, garnered support as the dedicated but less-crazy torch-bearer of global jihad. In addition, Zawahri has preserved ties to its long-standing ally, the Afghan Taliban, despite pressure on the group to disavow al-Qaida as part of peace negotiations.
On the negative side, even Zawahri’s admirers concede he was pedantic and lacked bin Laden’s charisma. Nor has al-Qaida been able to conduct spectacular terrorist attacks on the United States or Europe in recent years, though its affiliates have managed some limited strikes, such as the Saudi military trainee inspired by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula who killed three American sailors at a U.S. base in Florida in December 2019. In addition, the most important theater of jihad in the last decade — Syria — saw al-Qaida lose control of its local allies, which eventually rejected it. One split produced ISIS, which emerged as al-Qaida’s greatest rival in the jihadi movement. But even most of the remnant that stayed loyal, as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, eventually split from al-Qaida, seeking a local focus instead.
One of the biggest question marks about Zawahri’s leadership is now in play: What kind of movement will he bequeath to his successor? Much depends on who takes the helm. Leaders matter tremendously for terrorist groups, especially jihadi ones, which often rise and fall based on the fortunes of their emir. For now, there is no obvious successor with Zawahri’s broad name recognition and respect within the jihadi world. The al-Qaida core and its affiliates in Yemen, North Africa, and other countries, however, have been waging war for decades and they are likely to put forward a battle-tested leader who has at least some credibility. Indeed, it is possible that the new leader may be more charismatic than Zawahri.
Any successor will also benefit from the decline of ISIS, which is far weaker and less inspiring now that it has lost the caliphate. ISIS still endures, both in Syria and with supporters in other countries, and its model and ideas are powerful. The competition will continue. However, ISIS is no longer the recruiting and fundraising behemoth it was as its peak in 2014 and 2015.
The new leader will also need to ensure the loyalty of local affiliates, like al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen. These affiliates have their own incentives to stay loyal and keep the al-Qaida name. But if the global al-Qaida brand remains weak, there is less incentive for new groups to join and more for existing affiliates to defect. Perhaps more important, local groups may profess loyalty to the new leader but go their own way in practice, a constant problem for al-Qaida even in bin Laden’s days. Zawahri’s successor may find himself in charge of the al-Qaida name and a small group of fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan — and little else.
In order to boost his stature, the new leader may seek to conduct a high-profile terrorist attack on the West or otherwise gain attention. This would help him prove his bona fides and separate the leader from the mass of more local figures who are all vying for recruits and money.
Complicating such plans, however, is the robust U.S. counterterrorism apparatus, which is aided by allied intelligence services around the world. Although Zawahri evaded arrest or death by drone, numerous other al-Qaida and ISIS leaders did not. In Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere, al-Qaida leaders and key operatives are hunted. To survive, they need to be on the move, avoid communicating openly, and be wary of their fellows lest one be a spy or inadvertently give away the leader’s location. These steps, however, make it difficult if not impossible to run a global terrorist organization. Zawahri, for example, only issued commentary on important events like the Arab Spring and the United Arab Emirates-Israel peace accord weeks later, making his remarks less relevant. The problems are particularly acute for a new leader who does not personally know many of his subordinates or who has not yet earned their respect and trust.
Whoever emerges as al-Qaida’s leader is likely to preside over a turning point in the broader jihadi movement. The United States is seeking to draw down in the Middle East. The Arab Spring and associated civil wars no longer grab headlines or inspire volunteers. New venues for jihadism in Africa and Asia are emerging. Al-Qaida’s new leader, however long he survives, will have his hands full.