The Death of Ayman al-Zawahiri: Succession Challenges, Tradeoffs, and Other Implications.

AuthorRassler, Don

One hour after sunrise of the last day of July this year, the hakim of the ummah (the wise man of the nation), as al-Qa'ida followers liked to call him, or the safih of the ummah (the fool of the nation) as Islamic State supporters liked to call him was killed in a U.S. airstrike. (1) For most people who are not so kind or playful with an honorific, Ayman al-Zawahiri--the now deceased leader of al-Qa'ida--was a murderous zealot, an individual who led, and principally shaped, an organization that killed and maimed thousands of innocent civilians around the world.

Al-Zawahiri's death is incredibly significant for three reasons. First, al-Zawahiri was one of the few remaining legacy, early generational figures of al-Qa'ida who were part of the group on 9/11 (or earlier) and who are still alive and/or active with the movement. A few other legacy figures who were members of that much earlier version of al-Qa'ida still remain, but that list gets shorter and shorter every year, and soon that legacy cohort will likely be gone and the first generational chapter of al-Qa'ida will formally close. Al-Zawahiri's death makes that coming reality starker. Second, the al-Zawahiri strike is an important and symbolic win for the United States, and those looking for justice. It took the United States almost 21 years after 9/11 to find and kill al-Zawahiri, and despite numerous ups and downs in the search, it eventually accomplished that goal. Third, the loss of al-Zawahiri represents a major inflection point for al-Qa'ida as a global movement and brand, as the group has much riding on who they nominate to succeed him and what the central element of al-Qa'ida does next. How al-Qa'ida handles the transition could strengthen the group. It could also be a transition that, like a loose thread, facilitates a greater unraveling.

Initial reporting and accounts have helped to paint a picture of what happened in Kabul. But al-Qa'ida has yet to release a statement acknowledging the strike, and there is still a lot unknown about the circumstances surrounding al-Zawahiri's death. Questions abound. For example, out of all the potential places where the Taliban could hide al-Zawahiri and his family in Afghanistan, why put him in Kabul, a congested urban area where there are a lot of people watching and where the United States had a lot of networks and influence? That seems a risky move for a man who had a $25 million bounty on his head. There is also the question of how al-Zawahiri got to his Kabul compound in the first place, and where he was prior. Who helped him? (Initial reports suggest that Sirajuddin Haqqani and other Haqqani figures played a key role. (a) ) Who else within the Taliban knew that he was there? (The Taliban has denied knowing about "Zawahiri's arrival and stay in Kabul." (b) ) How did the United States find him? And who else is the Taliban sheltering?

While more will be learned about these questions, and others, in the weeks and months ahead, some details about al-Zawahiri's presence and death in Kabul are likely to remain murky and shrouded in mystery, at least for the public, for quite some time.

This article is divided into two parts. The first part examines key challenges, tradeoffs, and options that al-Qa'ida faces as it works to select its next leader. The second part outlines several implications of al-Zawahiri's death for the global jihadi movement. The article then concludes with a short discussion about what al-Zawahiri's death means for U.S. counterterrorism.

Part 1: Leadership Succession--Key Challenges and Tradeoffs

The death of al-Zawahiri is a critical, and potentially monumental, inflection point for al-Qa'ida as a group and movement. The tradeoffs and dilemmas that al-Qa'ida faces in selecting al-Zawahiri's successor are indicative of some of the principal challenges that have complicated, and continue to complicate, the organization's standing, ability to inspire, and its operational capabilities and reach.

Legacy Figures and the Iran Question

When it comes to al-Qa'ida's leadership short list, the name most often mentioned is the Egyptian operative Saif al-'Adl, a senior and seasoned member of al-Qa'ida who is reported to still be in Iran (after he fled there in late 2001 after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan). (2) In many ways, al-'Adl is an attractive option: He is a respected and well-connected legacy al-Qa'ida figure who possesses a considerable amount of operational experience and expertise. (3) Al-'Adl also offers continuity and three decades worth of institutional memory, (4) important attributes that could help al-Qa'ida navigate the moment and position that it finds itself in--as a group that has reduced operational capabilities and is not as attractive to potential recruits as it has been in the past. As part of al-Qa'ida's 'old guard,' al-'Adl could also serve as a bridge between the 'older' and 'newer' guard of the group, and help the group start a new chapter.

For the past several years, there has been speculation and unconfirmed reports that al-'Adl has left Iran, (c) but many still believe that he is still in the country. (d) And if he remains there, it is highly unlikely that al-Qa'ida will select him to replace al-Zawahiri, as logistics and sharia constraints make such a move very problematic. According to al-Zawahiri himself, it is prohibited to have an emir of a group living in custody as a prisoner or under house arrest where that person cannot exercise their own free will or make their own decisions unencumbered. (e) Logistical issues compound the problem: If al-'Adl were to be appointed as the next leader of al-Qa'ida and remain in Iran, how would he securely and privately communicate with other al-Qa'ida leaders? There would always be the risk that communications to and from al-'Adl would be compromised with the Iranians able to monitor them. For al-Qa'ida, given its ongoing rivalry with the Islamic State, the optics of al-Qa'ida's leader being based in Iran and being seen as under the thumb of Tehran are disastrous. Al-Qa'ida knows that. But for its part, Iran also knows that if al-Qa'ida were to appoint al-'Adl and he remained in Iran, the United States and other partners would make hosting him costly.

In addition to creating significant credibility and legitimacy problems for al-Qa'ida, al-Qa'ida appointing an Iran-based operative as its leader also comes with its own share of security challenges. Indeed, it was not that long ago--in 2020--that Abu Muhammad al-Masri, another senior al-Qa'ida figure who had been living in Iran, was gunned down (along with his daughter, the widow of Hamza bin Ladin) in Tehran by Israeli agents. (5) Besides killing al-Masri, that operation sent a powerful message to other senior al-Qa'ida figures living in the country: You are not safe.

There is also the question of al-'Adl's suitability for the role, and whether he would be the 'right' person. It is worth highlighting that at one point near the time of his death, Usama bin Ladin did not believe that al-'Adl was the right fit to serve as his deputy. (f) Apparently, bin Ladin was not so excited at the time to continue to have al-Zawahiri as his deputy either, so he asked the senior Libyan al-Qa'ida operative Atiyah Abd al-Rahman (aka Atiyah and Atiyyatullah) to suggest names of potential candidates for that role. (6) In his response letter, Atiyah suggested several individuals, most of whom are currently deceased, but among them was al-'Adl. Bin Ladin did not believe that al-'Adl was the right fit to be his deputy because in bin Ladin's diplomatic way of putting it: Al-'Adl 's strengths were in the military domain, and not in strategic affairs. "I think that he has his efforts that benefit the jihad and the mujahideen, but in the military work, which is below taking up the position of the general command or even the position of deputy, whether a first or a second deputy," bin Ladin wrote. (7) Among the other names that Atiyah strongly suggested as a deputy to bin Ladin was 'Abdul-Rahman al-Maghribi, al-Zawahiri's son-in-law and the head of al-Qa'ida's media arm, as-Sahab, at the time (see below for more details). (8) "Our brother 'Abdul-Rahman al-Maghribi has a very good mentality, a solid religion, high morals, [and is] secretive and patient. [He has] the right thinking and excellent awareness. He is fit for leadership, by God's permission," Atiyah wrote to bin Ladin. (9)

Another complicating factor is that not much is publicly known about al-'Adl's more recent activities, how his standing or role within al-Qa'ida has potentially evolved in the past several years, or if he would even want the leadership position if offered. Several sources (10)--such as intelligence provided to the United Nations Security Council by member states since at least 2018; (11) an insider account from 2017 that provides insight into how al-'Adl was playing a key role in and helping to shape al-Qa'ida's affairs in Syria; (12) information shared by U.S. officials; (g) and the fact that al-'Adl still has a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head (which was increased from $5 million in 2018) (13)--strongly suggest that al-'Adl is still active and that he remains a key senior al-Qa'ida player. That is the consensus view. But specific public details about his role since 2017, and his views generally, are extremely thin. Furthermore, if al-'Adl is al-Qa'ida's preferred 'guy' and he is still in Iran, it is not known if al-Qa'ida would need to, or be able to, strike a deal with the Islamic Republic that would allow al-'Adl to leave the country. There is also the issue of whether al-'Adl would want to leave his family (who joined him in Iran) or if al-Qa'ida, as part of whatever deal it...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT