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Opinion: What Ayman al-Zawahiri's death means for al-Qaida's future

In this 1998 file photo, Ayman al-Zawahiri (left) holds a press conference with Osama bin Laden in Khost, Afghanistan. Zawahiri succeeded bin Laden as al-Qaida's leader following the 2011 U.S. raid that killed bin Laden in Pakistan.
Mazhar Ali Khan
Associated Press
In this 1998 file photo, Ayman al-Zawahiri (left) holds a press conference with Osama bin Laden in Khost, Afghanistan. Zawahiri succeeded bin Laden as al-Qaida's leader following the 2011 U.S. raid that killed bin Laden in Pakistan.

Colin P. Clarke (@ColinPClarke) is the director of research at the Soufan Group and a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center.

After hunting for him for 21 years, U.S. forces killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri over the weekend with a drone strike targeting him at a safe house in Kabul, Afghanistan. Zawahiri had led al-Qaida since May 2011, when U.S. special operations forces killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

While al-Qaida has been weakened significantly over the past 20 years, the killing of Zawahiri is important symbolically, given his legacy in engineering the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and his competent leadership as a terrorist mastermind. His death brings al-Qaida to a major crossroads, as it selects a new leader, or emir. The group's leaders will have to decide whether to go with a known and trusted top figure — or a newer one who might appeal more to the next generation of recruits.

Their decision will shape what al-Qaida will look like moving forward. It comes against the backdrop of a global jihadist movement that is far from its death knell, but diminished by a two-decade onslaught of the U.S.-led global war on terrorism. Both al-Qaida and the Islamic State have been forced to rely on a franchise model of terrorism, in which a decentralized network of affiliates and branches carries out attacks in the name of the ideology of Salafi-jihadism.

So Zawahiri's death now places al-Qaida in a precarious position. Can its next emir unite and inspire a new generation of jihadists — a cohort that is currently far less enthusiastic than its predecessors about traveling abroad to fight in civil wars and insurgencies? If it turns out that al-Qaida is unable to settle on a new leader, fissures could emerge, further constraining the organization at a critical moment.

Zawahiri's legacy as al-Qaida leader

Although Zawahiri's plodding and pedantic style was often the subject of ridicule, even among other jihadists, he was more focused on substance than flash. His tenure as a veteran jihadist afforded the one-time member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad with a deep memory of the trials and tribulations facing the global jihadist movement over the years — from the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan in the 1980s to living in Sudan with bin Ladenand other high-ranking al-Qaida lieutenants in the early 1990s.

When Zawahiri inherited the role as al-Qaida's chief, it was just months after the start of the Arab Spring revolutions sweeping the Middle East — events that threatened to make al-Qaida and other jihadist groups irrelevant. In mid- to late-2011, the conventional wisdom was that democratic uprisings in countries like Egypt, Syria, and Libya would prove once and for all that al-Qaida's narrative — that only violence could bring about change — was completely bankrupt.

However, autocrats seized power and strongmen ruthlessly suppressed protests and demonstrations. The result, to many in the Middle East and North Africa, was that al-Qaida's worldview had been vindicated.

In 2014, the Islamic State rose from the ashes of sectarian violence in Iraq and Syria and was poised to crush al-Qaida, poaching recruits and overwhelming al-Qaida franchise groups from the Sahel to the Levant.

Yet even as the Islamic State ran roughshod over cities like Mosul and Raqqa to establish its so-called caliphate, al-Qaida went underground, quietly and patiently rebuilding and attempting to capitalize on the Islamic State's reputation for extreme brutality — which was a turnoff for some jihadists who considered the violence gratuitous and beyond the pale. In some ways, al-Qaida was even able to portray itself as the moderate alternative to the Islamic State.

Who is Zawahiri's likely successor?

Many counterterrorism analysts believe that the logical successor to Zawahiri is veteran jihadist and fellow Egyptian Saif al-Adl, a longtime Zawahiri confidante and trusted lieutenant. But Adl has been living under semi-house arrest in Iran, where the regime keeps a watchful eye on al-Qaida senior leadership who fled there after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001. Iran is also where high-ranking al-Qaida member Abu Muhammad al-Masri was killed in August 2020, allegedly by Israeli assassins on a motorbike.

If Adl is ultimately judged to be too vulnerable due to his presence in Iran, or too old to appeal to new recruits, then al-Qaida is left with only a few choices that could gain widespread acceptance. Some were listed recently 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 leader of the al-Shabab extremist group.

In a sign of how badly the group has been damaged, no names from al-Qaida's once-vaunted Yemeni affiliate — al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula — appear on the list.

There is also the possibility that the succession issue leads to splintering. The prominence of the conflict in Syria since 2011 has led some within jihadist circles to argue forcefully for the elevation of an individual like Abu Abd al-Karim al-Masri, a high-ranking member of al-Qaida's Syrian branch, Hurras al-Din. Choosing a militant leader in the Levant would be a change in the group's center of gravity and a break from tradition.

The remainder of 2022 will be an important period for al-Qaida. The United States and its allies have sought to move on from the global war on terrorism, pivoting to great power competition with countries like China and Russia. Given the ongoing war in Ukraine and increased tensions across the Taiwan Strait, it's safe to say that the Biden administration is mostly focused on national security priorities other than terrorism.

Eliminating Zawahiri was an important achievement, but the U.S. must remain focused on finishing the job and stamping al-Qaida out permanently by maintaining an aggressive operational tempo, while simultaneously diminishing the appeal and resonance of its ideology in regions where it still thrives.

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Colin P. Clarke