End of a ‘Terrorist’

What is the future of the al-Qaeda after the exit of Ayman al-Zawahiri?

September 2022

When President Joe Biden announced the killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul, his countrymen were happy that another 'terrorist' had been eliminated.

The US may be down and out from Afghanistan but it is surely not out of the picture. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed in Kabul in a US drone attack on July 31.

A very senior al-Qaeda leader, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, was reportedly killed in Tehran by Israeli agents at the behest of the United States.

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) confirmed the killing of its senior commander Omar Khalid Khorasani during a blast in eastern Afghanistan.

Ayman al-Zawahiri was the head of al-Qaeda after the U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. He became a revolutionary at 15 and joined an Islamist underground cell. In 1981, al-Zawahiri was implicated in President Anwar Sadat’s assassination and jailed for four years. After his release from an Egyptian prison, he joined bin Laden in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Since then, he had been responsible for planning and ordering numerous terrorist attacks against the United States—including the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Kenya and Tanzania, the U.S.S. Cole attack in Yemen in 2000, and, reportedly, the Sept. 11 attacks.

Where will al-Qaeda go next and what kind of movement will Zawahiri’s successor inherit?

Zawahiri assumed control of al-Qaeda after the U.S. Navy Seals killed bin Laden in 2011. Zawahiri was praised as a “mastermind” and criticized as a leader. Analysts noted that Zawahiri avoided the trap of trying to build a state and so avoided destruction at the hands of the U.S. military and its allies. They also point out that he had preserved relationships with many key affiliates around the world. In addition, Zawahiri preserved ties to its long-standing ally, the Afghan Taliban, despite pressure on the group to disavow al-Qaeda as part of peace negotiations.

On the negative side, even Zawahiri’s admirers concede he was pedantic and lacked bin Laden’s charisma. Al-Qaeda was not 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-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who killed three American sailors at a U.S. base in Florida in December 2019. In addition, the most important theatre of jihad in the last decade — Syria — saw al-Qaeda lose control of its local allies, which eventually rejected it. One split produced the ISIS, which emerged as al-Qaeda’s greatest rival in the jihadi movement.

One of the biggest question marks about Zawahiri’s leadership is what kind of movement will be bequeathed to his successor? Much depends on who takes the helm. Leaders matter tremendously for terrorist groups, which often rise and fall based on the fortunes of their emir. For now, there is no obvious successor with Zawahiri’s broad name recognition and respect in the world. The al-Qaeda 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 Zawahiri.

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This article is based on a piece by Daniel L. Byman titled ‘The Death of Ayman al-Zawahiri and the Future of al-Qaeda' published by the Brookings Institute.

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