After Zawahiri, what lies next for al-Qaeda
The top job for now will possibly go to someone already blessed by Zawahiri, but the future al-Qaeda could be much more Afghanistan-Pakistan centric as the group looks towards a new era of ideological and operational leadership
An announcement made by United States (US) President Joe Biden on August 1, detailing that a US counterterror operation in Kabul had killed al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri brought an end to a manhunt that lasted more than 30 years. Al-Zawahiri, born in Egypt and a trained doctor, exchanged his stethoscope for a Kalashnikov, and became Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man after al-Qaeda and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) allied in the 1990s, and merged into a single entity in mid-2001, a few months before 9/11.
Zawahiri took over al-Qaeda after the Abbottabad raid of 2011 killed bin Laden. He worked behind the scenes to propel al-Qaeda into the world’s most wanted jihadist group. Unassuming in characteristics, Zawahiri’s job after 2011 was not easy. The legacy of the group was cemented by 9/11, the US with its allies were hunting down al-Qaeda operatives and had invaded Iraq and Afghanistan in the process. Ironically, both these invasions only ended up enhancing the al-Qaeda brand. Around the time of 9/11, al-Qaeda reportedly had around 400 to 500 members, compared to an estimated 30,000 today, as its affiliates expanded world over from al-Shabaab in Somalia and eastern Africa to al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent, (AQIS) in South Asia.
Despite what some analytical and public discourse suggests, al-Qaeda has diminished both in its operational and strategic range, and is weaker compared to its past, but by no means can the threat it poses be taken for granted. Al-Qaeda under Zawahiri was largely quiet, and did not conduct any large terror attacks, and even suffered heavy losses. Famed preacher and al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) chief, Anwar Nasser al-Awlaki, was also killed by a US drone strike in Yemen four months after bin Laden. Al-Awlaki was adept in the techniques of radicalisation, his sermons were distributed via CDs and tapes, and held a strong portfolio. In 2019, AQIS chief Asim Umar, born in Uttar Pradesh, and who led AQIS’s operations since its inception in 2014 under Zawahiri’s guidance, was also killed in Afghanistan’s Helmand province in a joint US-Afghan army raid. Since 2012-13, al-Qaeda was challenged by the unrestricted rise of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq, a group born out of the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq. IS’s strong performative tactics, capturing territory rapidly and beaming its propaganda on smartphones, TV, and newspapers diminished al-Qaeda’s position. Zawahiri continued to release hours-long ideological sermons, hundreds of pages of long books, only adding to his image of an outdate ideologue losing ground to more “Hollywood” jihadist groups. However, al-Qaeda’s strong ideological moorings and long strategic visions always placed the group above IS as a global threat. And today, Afghanistan under the Taliban provides a return of its old training grounds once again.
Zawahiri’s “legacy” quotient, as bin Laden’s successor, is difficult to replicate. One of the top names that has been circulated to replace him is Saif al-Adl, a former Egyptian commando, and part of EIJ. However, since 2003, Saif has been living an ironical life of being a senior member of al-Qaeda, a Sunni-jihadist group, but based in Iran, the seat of power for Shia Islam. Tehran’s provision of safe spaces to al-Qaeda operatives is seen from the point of view of strategic leverage. In 2020, Abu Muhammed al-Masri, thought to be Zawahiri’s second-in-command, was reportedly killed in Tehran in an Israeli-run operation.
However, it was Hamza bin Laden, one of Osama bin Laden’s sons, who was being honed to take over after Zawahiri. In September 2019, the US said Hamza was killed in a counterterror operation “in the Pakistan/Afghanistan” region. A return of the bin Laden name could have become a significant force multiplier. So, as of now, the race to the top is wide open.
India’s immediate terrorism challenges are different, and largely come from Pakistan-backed groups aimed at Kashmir. AQIS, for example, has never managed a large-scale attack on India. For al-Qaeda, India is an important checkpoint for its financial and money laundering activities. The top job for now will possibly go to someone already blessed by Zawahiri, but the future al-Qaeda could be much more Afghanistan-Pakistan centric as the group looks towards a new era of ideological and operational leadership.
Kabir Taneja is a research fellow in the Observer Research Foundation’s strategic studies programme. He is also the author of The ISIS Peril: The World’s Most Feared Terror Group and its Shadow on South Asia The views expressed are personal.