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Zawahiri’s Killing: Will it End al-Qaeda or Revive it?

Zawahiri’s Killing: Will it End al-Qaeda or Revive it?

Friday, 26 August, 2022 - 08:45
Charles Lister
Charles Lister is a senior fellow and Director of the Countering Terrorism and Extremism Program at the Middle East Institute

It is now almost four weeks since al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed in an American drone strike on the balcony of a residence in the diplomatic quarter of the Afghan capital Kabul. The strike represented the end of a decades-long search for Zawahiri, a veteran figure of al-Qaeda’s terrorist campaign across the Middle East and further afield.

That his death came at the hands of a US missile brought a sense of justice, but his discovery in the heart of Taliban-controlled Kabul, in a house linked to Sirajuddin Haqqani, raised acute concerns about Afghanistan’s newfound status as a terrorist safe-haven.

The near silence from al-Qaeda since Zawahiri’s death is clear evidence of the crisis that his death will have sparked within the terrorist organization’s senior leadership.

Next in line for succession lies Sayf al-Adel, a veteran member of al-Qaeda’s command and a former Egyptian special forces commander. Yet Sayf al-Adel remains a controversial figure within al-Qaeda’s network of affiliates, accused of divisiveness, paranoia and a lack of strategic foresight and balance.

His location in Iran is another problem, as several al-Qaeda affiliates have made clear in private communications in recent years. Moreover, he has purportedly been missing for over a year, feared arrested in full by Iranian authorities.

Another possible candidate is Abdulrahman al-Maghrebi, Zawahiri’s son-in-law who runs al-Qaeda’s central media operation, as-Sahab.

Choosing a Moroccan to take the help of al-Qaeda would be a logical step in acknowledging the central role of Africa in al-Qaeda’s future prospects, but as with Sayf al-Adel, Maghrebi is also based in Iran and his ability to exert meaningful leadership from there would be highly uncertain.

The prospect of a crisis of succession for al-Qaeda has been the subject of analyst debate inside and outside of government for years, so surely al-Qaeda will have had a plan.

Nonetheless, the month of silence that has followed would seem to indicate a level of uncertainty at the heart of a terrorist organization in transition.

Over the past decade, al-Qaeda has changed significantly. Due in large part to intensive and sustained counterterrorism pressure, al-Qaeda’s central leadership has become an increasingly distant component of al-Qaeda’s real-world campaigns.

Whereas Osama bin Laden represented a charismatic operational leader, Zawahiri emerged as a rather uninspiring caretaker scholar.

Al-Qaeda decentralized to such an extent that it is best now described as a movement rather than an organization – a movement of loosely linked affiliates each conducting their own locally unique extremist insurgencies over which Zawahiri has minimal, if any influence.

Zawahiri’s death therefore, is unlikely to have much of an impact on any of al-Qaeda’s affiliates and their capabilities to sustain potent insurgencies across the Maghreb, the Sahel, in Somalia, Yemen and across South Asia.

Moreover, while those affiliates are now almost entirely focused on their respective local or regional theaters – rather than global attacks – the death of Zawahiri could catalyze a short-term reorientation towards attacking Western targets as a form of retaliation.

In Afghanistan meanwhile, Zawahiri’s death in Kabul will have forced al-Qaeda’s operatives there to go immediately “to ground,” but they will remain, biding their time thanks to their decades-old ties with the Haqqani Network and other sympathetic wings of the Taliban.

While the Biden administration has sold the killing of Zawahiri as evidence that an “over the horizon” counterterrorism strategy works, the strike was the result of more than 10 years of intelligence work, focused on the most wanted terrorist on the planet.

Will the United States be equally capable of detecting, intercepting and neutralizing covert cells of mid-level operatives plotting attacks against Western targets in the immediate region with the same precision? It seems unlikely.

The key point here is that whoever al-Qaeda chooses as its new leader, the threats and security challenges posed by al-Qaeda across the world will at best remain the same, and at worst, escalate.

Should Zawahiri’s successor fail to revitalize al-Qaeda’s organization, then its affiliates will continue to do what they have been doing for over a decade – challenging and undermining local governments in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

If Zawahiri’s successor turns out to be a marked improvement, then those localized extremist campaigns will continue and be complemented by a newfound emphasis on global terrorism. There are no “good” scenarios to be seen.

For the international community however, Zawahiri’s death represents a great counterterrorism achievement and a further step on the path towards al-Qaeda’s defeat.

This interpretation fundamentally misunderstands what al-Qaeda represents today, and risks inculcating a dangerous complacency.

The decentralized and locally focused al-Qaeda movement of today poses threats that much of the world is failing to challenge and to which we are mostly refusing to turn our attention towards.

With time, al-Qaeda will eventually reveal Zawahiri’s replacement, but to a large extent, that revelation will be a sideshow. The real challenge remains as it has done for many years: with the affiliates themselves.

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