What Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Death Means For the Future of Al-Qaida

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Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed over the weekend by a drone strike aimed at his safe house in Kabul, Afghanistan. The U.S. had been looking for him for 21 years. Zawahiri was in charge of al-Qaida after the U.S. killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011.

In the wake of his death, al-Qaeda is forced to choose a new leader or Emir. Leadership in the group must decide on whether to go with a known figurehead or someone more unique who would be more appealing to the group’s next wave of recruits.

Their decision will shape the future of al-Qaida. While the worldwide jihadist movement is far from being defeated, the United States-led global fight against terrorism over the past two decades has taken a toll.

Terrorist groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State have been pushed to operate under the umbrella of Salafi-jihadism through a network of affiliates and branches.

Who is most likely to succeed Ayman Zawahiri?

So, al-Qaida is in a dangerous situation now that Zawahiri is dead. Can its next Emir bring together and inspire a new generation of jihadists much less eager than their parents to fight in civil wars and insurgencies abroad? If al-Qaida can not agree on a new leader, gaps could appear, significantly putting even more pressure on the group.

In the eyes of many counterterrorism experts, senior jihadist and fellow Egyptian Saif al-Adl, a longstanding Zawahiri ally and valued lieutenant, is the natural successor to Zawahiri. 

Adl is under semi-house arrest in Iran, where al-Qaida commanders fled following the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. In Iran, al-Qaida leader Abu Muhammad al-Masri was assassinated in August 2020, purportedly by Israeli assassins on a motorcycle.

Al-Qaida is left with just a few options if Adl is found to be too vulnerable owing to his Iranian residence or too elderly to entice fresh members. Some were recently identified in a United Nations report, including Zawahiri’s son-in-law Abdal Rahman al-Maghrebi, the Algerian Yazid Mebrak of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, and the Somali Ahmed Diriye, the current head of the al-Shabab extremist organization.

No names from al-once-famous Qaida’s Yemeni branch, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, are on the list. This shows how badly the group has been damaged.

There is also a chance that the issue of who should lead could cause the group to split up. Some jihadists have argued strongly for promoting someone like Abu Abd al-Karim al-Masri, a high-ranking member of al-Syrian Qaida’s branch, Hurras al-Din. 

 With this decision, the group’s centre of gravity will shift, breaking its long-held practices.

The rest of 2022 will be a crucial time for al-Qaida. The U.S. and its allies have been trying to move on from the global war on terrorism and compete with countries like China and Russia. Since the war in Ukraine is still going on and tensions are getting worse across the Taiwan Strait, it is safe to say that the Biden administration is mainly focused on other national security issues than terrorism.

Eliminating Zawahiri was a great success. However, the U.S. must finish the job and stamp out al-Qaida permanently by maintaining an aggressive operational tempo and reducing its ideology in countries where it still thrives.

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Nismah Naveed Bhatti
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