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Here’s What Will Happen to Al-Qaeda After Leader’s Death

¿Quién comandará a al-Qaeda?

Leer en Español

[Leer en español]

THIS LAST weekend of July, U.S. forces killed one of the world’s most wanted terrorists: Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri (71), the second leader of al-Qaeda and the heir to command after the assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011 in Pakistan.

For the renowned editor of The New Yorker, Lawrence Wright, “al-Qaeda would not have survived without the dynamic they created together”: Both Osama, the financial enforcer, and Aymán, the ideological associate.

Al-Zawahiri — with $25 million on his head — went down in a drone strike. He was in Kabul, Afghanistan, amid an environment conducive to the strengthening of the extremist organization thanks to the presence of the Taliban, who today politically and administratively control the country after the withdrawal of American troops in 2021.

According to specialists, the decline suffered by al-Qaeda it is estimated that it has forty thousand members may give way to internal competition for leadership. Fractures are a latent risk and can be exploited by Western counter-terrorism efforts. In contrast to what is usually believed after the death of Osama bin Laden, several agencies and civilian and military analysts agree that the organization continues to represent a threat to the security of the United States and its allies.

As is well known, the fundamentalist group has a network of franchises in various parts of the world — in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East — with particular leaderships, almost operationally autonomous and that may not hesitate to fight for the leadership and central authority.

Succession with fewer options

Before his death in May 2011, Osama bin Laden chose al-Zawahiri as a future successor. His tenure has been considered by some as effective in keeping the group afloat (he even dealt with the late al-Zarqawi, the uncontrollable and brutal initiator of what would become the Islamic State, ISIS, an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq), but he lacked the internal and external charisma of his predecessor. Zawahiri had continued to groom Osama’s fifteenth and favorite son, Hamza bin Laden, for a leading role and, above all, to revitalize messaging and recruitment among young men eager to join the global jihad.

Hamza, however — who had also married a daughter of al-Zawahiri and also the daughter of Mohamed Atta, the main perpetrator of the attack on the Twin Towers in New York on September 11, 2001 — was killed in an American counterterrorism operation in 2017 or 2018. He was roughly 30 years old.

However, there are those who question the effectiveness of Zawahiri’s leadership. For Peter Bergen of the University of Arizona, Osama’s former personal physician was running the organization “into the ground.” Zawahiri “was unable to resuscitate the terrorist group, which hasn’t carried out a major attack in the West since al-Qaeda-trained suicide bombers killed 52 travelers in London in 2005,” Bergen comments on the limitations of reaching specific targets based on the violent nature of the group.

Another casualty that cut off a candidate as a possible leader was Abu al-Masri, the group’s former chief trainer and most experienced operational planner. Also of Egyptian origin, al-Masri was killed in August 2020 by Israeli agents in Tehran, the Iranian capital.

One name has sounded strong as the potential third al-Qaeda emir: Saif al-Adel, another Egyptian very close to the late Osama bin Laden.

“With the exception of bin Laden himself, it is hard to think of anyone who has played a more central role in all of al-Qaeda’s formative events than Saif al-Adel. His history as a founding member of al-Qaeda and loyal lieutenant to Osama bin Laden would alone be enough to command the respect of the group’s members. (…) But inherited glory is by no means the only attribute that makes Saif dangerous. He is a seasoned military officer, with experience in both formal armed forces and militias. He has demonstrated on multiple occasions, culminating in the defense of Kandahar in 2001, that he is a tenacious and inventive military commander. He has experience in developing effective intelligence and security protocols. He was one of the principal planners in the East Africa and USS Cole (ship) bombing in Yemen, the two largest pre-9/11 al-Qaeda attacks. He has worked to develop valuable and long-standing personal connections between powerful groups from the Levant to Afghanistan,” pointed out Ali Soufan, the former FBI agent and now CEO of the international intelligence and security consulting firm The Soufan Group (New York), last year.

It is therefore Saif al-Adel, who lives in Iran, the leader with the best chance of becoming the third emir of al-Qaeda’s Sunni jihadism. Although, as Dr. Tricia Bacon, former US State Department counter-terrorism analyst has stated, nothing in the background prevents a name with a less public profile, a skilled franchisee, from challenging the expected succession. There are, for example, Abdal al-Maghrebi, Yazid Mebrak (AQIM) or Amhed Diriye (Somalia’s al-Shabaab).

An impeccable intelligence operation

“It is clear that this was the result of months of patient intelligence work and the ability to act on that with extraordinary precision […] The success of the operation is a testament to the CIA’s unrelenting focus on terrorism over the past 20 years […] This is very hard, detail-oriented work that relies on experience, precise intelligence, refined judgment, timing, and unremitting dedication,” specialist John McLaughlin of the Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University pointed out after the recent event in Kabul.

The fall of al-Zawahiri — in a flawless intelligence operation, with no collateral casualties of other civilians, including his own family who were accompanying him in the same compound of the attack — will indeed fuel debates and academic literature dealing with the targeted assassination of leadership and its impact on the longevity of extremist groups.

Western counterterrorism efforts may take advantage of the juncture to further degrade the ability of terrorists to inflict irreparable damage such as that perpetrated over the years by al-Qaeda and its transnational affiliates

Editor’s Note: This article was originally written in Spanish. The text and quotes have been translated and edited for clarity. 

Political analyst and columnist focused on issues of risk and political conflict, radicalization and violent political extremism // Analista político y columnista enfocado en temas de riesgo y conflictos políticos, radicalización y extremismo político violento

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