Al Qaeda is battered, but don’t rejoice yet
It may return if more structural concerns in counter-terror thinking and policies are not addressed over time
Over the past few weeks, amid the global chaos of the Covid-19 pandemic and the United States (US) elections, a series of events reportedly eliminated a major section of al Qaeda’s top leadership. The terror group was founded by the once most-wanted man on earth, Osama bin Laden, who was killed at Abbottabad, Pakistan, in a US raid in 2011.
According to a yet-uncorroborated claim, al Qaeda’s chief, Egypt-born Aymen al-Zawahiri, who took over after bin Laden, passed away two months ago from natural causes. Reports also surfaced that one of his closest aides, Abu Mohammed al-Masri, was killed in Tehran, Iran, where he was living under a false identity, purportedly by an Israeli hit squad in August.
Prior to al-Masri and Zawahiri, bin Laden’s son, Hamza bin Laden, who was being groomed to take over the group, was killed in a US operation in 2019. Late last month, another senior al-Qaeda leader, Hussam Abdur Rauf, head of the group’s media operations, was killed by Afghan forces in Taliban-controlled territories. Only one senior al-Qaeda leader’s name is being discussed as a replacement for Zawahiri after al-Masri’s killing, and that is of Saif al-Adel, also from Egypt.
After 19 years of the US war against terror, the past few years have been comparatively successful in decimating figures in the al Qaeda leadership, starting with Osama bin Laden himself, arguably fragmenting structures and hierarchies. Like any other organisation, jihadist groups are equally, if not more, prone to internal strife around power, ideology and control.
The killing of al Qaeda leaders has now sparked a debate on what the future holds for the once-feared terror group, a reputation overtaken by the threat posed by the so-called Islamic State (IS) today. While some argue that an imminent disintegration of al Qaeda after Zawahiri may be on the cards, there are other more radical ideas like that of a potential merger between IS and al Qaeda.
Under Zawahiri, al Qaeda was often seen as a bureaucratic, old-school and somewhat stoic jihadist movement, especially in comparison to IS, which took over much of the narrative, threat and global attention since 2014 with its pace. It became synonymous with deadly levels of violence, control of territory and robust online propaganda which attracted hundreds of foreigners, including a few from India. In comparison, Zawahiri, known for his dense monologues, was seen as too bookish to attract a new breed of jihadists. Arguably, the last al Qaeda leader, along with bin Laden, who was charismatic was Anwar al-Awlaki, killed in 2011 in Yemen. His lectures on Islam that were narrated with great script and panache still find many takers today.
The idea behind a merger of IS and al Qaeda comes from the fact that the secession of al Qaeda in Iraq from al-Qaeda Central created ISIS. Ideologue Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had then fallen out with bin Laden and gone his own way, along with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who as IS chief, was killed last year.
However, today, al Qaeda is arguably playing second fiddle to IS as it hangs on to its legacy. IS is able to make continuous claims of attacks across geographies, from Afghanistan to the African Sahel and Europe to Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, al Qaeda appears destined to hide behind the protection of the Taliban in Afghanistan, which itself is negotiating with the US, and theoretically could throw al-Qaeda under the bus or puppeteer it significantly to achieve its larger political aims that start and end with Afghan territory.
However, it would be a mistake to write off al Qaeda just yet. The group has proved its penchant for survival over the years. The fact that it has seemingly managed to cut a deal for safe haven in Iran, the seat of Shia Islam, as a Sunni insurgency, speaks volumes for the prevalence of broader geopolitical interests over sectarian fissures.
Also, it must not be forgotten that the argument of depleted hierarchy today also applies to IS, whose new leadership remains largely nameless and faceless.
Nonetheless, a significantly depleted al Qaeda in a post-Zawahiri era may be a welcome enough development. This, however, does not change the fact that as a group it remains much more grounded for a long-haul return if more structural concerns in global counter-terror thinking and policies are not addressed over time.
Where IS came from is a good enough reason to not underestimate the fact that even in jihadist groups, it is often that the tortoise that eventually wins the race while the hare gets most of the attention before its eventual downfall.
Kabir Taneja is Fellow, Strategic Studies Programme, Observer Research Foundation. He is the author of The ISIS Peril: The World’s Most Feared Terror Group and its Shadow on South Asia
The views expressed are personal