What Zawahiri’s Death Means for al Qaeda’s Future

Impressive as the operation to kill Ayman al-Zawahiri was, it doesn’t obviate the terrorism threat from Afghanistan.

By , the director of research at the Soufan Group and a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center.
A screen grab shows Zawahiri speaking above a chyron in Arabic with his name and position in al Qaeda.
A screen grab shows Zawahiri speaking above a chyron in Arabic with his name and position in al Qaeda.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s then-second in command, speaks in a screen grab taken from a video produced by al Qaeda-linked media group al-Sahab and broadcast by Al Jazeera on Sept. 11, 2006. AFP PHOTO/AL JAZEERA via Getty Images

The targeted killing of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri sent shock waves throughout the U.S. national security community Monday evening. In a televised address to the nation, U.S. President Joe Biden laid out the details of the Hellfire missile strike that killed Zawahiri as he stood on the balcony of a safe house where he was staying in the middle of Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, over the weekend.

His location—and the fact that, according to U.S. officials, senior Taliban officials from the Haqqani network were aware of his presence there—is further evidence that the Taliban, the Haqqani network, and al Qaeda remain a triumvirate: a terrorist trio in lockstep that have not severed, and never intended to sever, their ties, despite the terms of the 2020 Doha Agreement that helped bring the Taliban to power last year. Under that agreement, the Taliban pledged not to let Afghanistan become a haven for international terrorists.

Given the rise of the Islamic State-Khorasan in Afghanistan, which opposes the Taliban and is a rival to al Qaeda, the Taliban need al Qaeda’s manpower—estimated to be as many as 400 active fighters in Afghanistan—to combat the growing Islamic State-Khorasan insurgency along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, making a split even less likely. Al Qaeda, in turn, needs the Taliban to maintain a sanctuary from which it can continue rebuilding its network and external attack capabilities.

The targeted killing of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri sent shock waves throughout the U.S. national security community Monday evening. In a televised address to the nation, U.S. President Joe Biden laid out the details of the Hellfire missile strike that killed Zawahiri as he stood on the balcony of a safe house where he was staying in the middle of Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, over the weekend.

His location—and the fact that, according to U.S. officials, senior Taliban officials from the Haqqani network were aware of his presence there—is further evidence that the Taliban, the Haqqani network, and al Qaeda remain a triumvirate: a terrorist trio in lockstep that have not severed, and never intended to sever, their ties, despite the terms of the 2020 Doha Agreement that helped bring the Taliban to power last year. Under that agreement, the Taliban pledged not to let Afghanistan become a haven for international terrorists.

Given the rise of the Islamic State-Khorasan in Afghanistan, which opposes the Taliban and is a rival to al Qaeda, the Taliban need al Qaeda’s manpower—estimated to be as many as 400 active fighters in Afghanistan—to combat the growing Islamic State-Khorasan insurgency along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, making a split even less likely. Al Qaeda, in turn, needs the Taliban to maintain a sanctuary from which it can continue rebuilding its network and external attack capabilities.

Some dismissed Zawahiri’s death as trivial, describing him as “already irrelevant” and suggesting that his death will have relatively little impact on the global jihadi movement. But this analysis overlooks the critical role Zawahiri played in keeping al Qaeda together. While Zawahiri was long mocked for his lack of charisma, what much criticism gets wrong is that, though he certainly lacked Osama bin Laden’s appeal, he worked behind the scenes to forge consensus among al Qaeda affiliates, branches, and franchise groups.

When bin Laden was killed in May 2011 in Abbottabad, Pakistan, Zawahiri grabbed the reins of the organization in the midst of the upheaval caused by the Arab Spring revolutions. He navigated al Qaeda through this turbulent period and managed to mostly keep the group coherent during the massive challenge posed by the rise of the Islamic State—although it was under his leadership that al Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate broke off and morphed into the Islamic State in the first place. Still, by positioning al Qaeda as the less severe alternative to the Islamic State, Zawahiri managed to prevent further defections by elevating local grievances as a primary motivation of al Qaeda affiliates in various theaters of operation, from the Sahel to the Arabian Peninsula.

Weighing the legitimate criticisms of Zawahiri’s leadership, it might be easy to overlook his successes—which have, in classic Zawahiri style, been more muted and subtle. First, Zawahiri prevented further defections from al Qaeda following the fallout with the Islamic State. He managed to retain the allegiance of the remaining affiliates and even welcome new branches into the organization, including al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent. Second, as al Qaeda expert Asfandyar Mir has observed, Zawahiri “managed to instill in the group the sense that it was a global vanguard, emphasizing unity and political cohesion.” Third, and finally, he maintained al Qaeda’s relationship with the Taliban under immense pressure. Given his presence in Kabul, that relationship seems stronger than ever, and it could provide al Qaeda with the operational space it needs to grow its ranks and solidify command and control.

When Biden withdrew U.S. forces from Afghanistan one year ago this month, he sought to assuage policymakers by insisting that, despite no longer having U.S. troops on the ground there, Washington could keep its enemies at bay through an “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism campaign that relied on intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance augmented by world-class drones. But although the administration will point to the Zawahiri strike as proof that over-the-horizon is an effective approach, it’s merely one data point among many. When the United States launched a drone strike in Afghanistan last August in an effort to kill a suspected Islamic State-Khorasan terrorist who was thought to be planning a follow-on attack three days after a devastating bombing near the Kabul airport, the result was massive civilian casualties, including the death of 10 innocent Afghans, seven of them children.

The death of Zawahiri has led to speculation about who the next emir of al Qaeda will be. Conventional wisdom has long held that Saif al-Adel, like Zawahiri a veteran jihadi from Egypt, would be the group’s new leader. However, Adel is believed to be living in Iran under semi-house arrest, making him more compromised than some al Qaeda leaders would care to admit. Moreover, another high-ranking al Qaeda leader, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, was killed in Iran in a 2020 attack believed to be carried out by Israeli commandos. So not only would Adel be subject to possible manipulation by the Iranian regime, but he would also be vulnerable to being assassinated by one of the world’s elite counterterrorism units.

Abd al-Rahman al-Maghrebi has also been mentioned as a possible leader of al Qaeda in the wake of Zawahiri’s death. Maghrebi is also Zawahiri’s son-in-law and a senior leader with the jihadi credentials—including having served as al Qaeda’s general manager since 2012 as well as the head of its media arm, al-Sahab—that would be a good fit for the role of emir. The U.S. State Department described him as a “rising star in AQ for many years.”

A recent United Nations report discussing al Qaeda succession suggested that further down on the depth chart are Yazid Mebrak and Ahmed Diriye, leaders of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al-Shabab, respectively. And although at one point it was believed that former al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leader Qasim al-Raymi, who was killed in 2020, could be behind Zawahiri in the line of succession, no AQAP members, including current leader Khalid Batarfi, have been named in the U.N. report as possible replacements for Zawahiri.

Considering the prominence that has been afforded to Syria in the global jihad, there could be pressure building within al Qaeda to name someone like Abu Abd al-Karim al-Masri as the new overall head of the organization. Masri is currently a senior leader of Hurras al-Din, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, and is widely respected among younger generations of al Qaeda jihadis.

Al Qaeda could also seek to name a younger, relatively unknown militant to be its next leader, perhaps hoping to spark interest among younger generations of potential jihadis who were less than enthusiastic about the septuagenarian Zawahiri and his obsession with historical intricacies of Islamic theology, rather than the grievances motivating today’s youth. At one point, even though he lacked battlefield experience, Hamza bin Laden was believed to be considered a possible future leader of the group. However, the former leader’s son was killed by a U.S. drone strike at some point during the Trump administration, although to this day it remains unclear exactly when that occurred.

If there is a long period of time between Zawahiri’s death and naming his successor, it could lead groups in sub-Saharan Africa or elsewhere to seek greater autonomy, especially because these organizations, including Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin and al-Shabab, are mostly focused on local and parochial grievances to begin with rather than the more international and U.S.-focused mission of Zawahiri’s al Qaeda. A splintering or permanent break between core al Qaeda and any of its affiliates would be disastrous and could lead to a cascading effect where other franchise groups followed suit.

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 provided al Qaeda with a unique opportunity to rebound. The United States and its allies are primarily focused on great-power competition with China and the war between Russia and Ukraine. There is a sense of counterterrorism fatigue from two decades of global counterterrorism campaigns and a desire to turn the page. For some, Zawahiri’s death may prove the logical bookend to this period and further proof that the United States can manage the threat of transnational terrorism by adopting an offshore approach.

Impressive as the operation to eliminate Zawahiri was, it doesn’t obviate the continued threat emanating from Afghanistan. According to the Biden administration, up until his death, Zawahiri was guiding al Qaeda and “continually urging attacks on the United States and reinforcing the prioritization of the United States as al Qaeda’s primary enemy.” While none of those attacks materialized, al Qaeda’s next leader may be more successful in exhorting the group’s followers and inspiring homegrown violent extremists living in the West. Both al Qaeda and the Islamic State have suffered a series of setbacks and losses of key figures over the past two years. To reassert dominance atop the global jihadi movement, both groups are still striving to attack the West.

If the Taliban remain in power in Afghanistan and stay closely tethered to al Qaeda, as many observers expect, the prospect of a high-profile attack in the West could once again become a reality, setting the clock back from 2022 to the pre-9/11 era in Afghanistan, which may once again devolve into a failed state that poses a threat to global security.

Colin P. Clarke is the director of research at the Soufan Group and a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center. Twitter: @ColinPClarke

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