European Eye on Radicalization (EER) recently hosted its fourteenth webinar, focusing on the outlook for Al-Qaeda after the killing of its emir, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
U.S. President Joe Biden announced on 1 August that Zawahiri had been killed in a drone strike in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, a day earlier. The infamous Egyptian-born terrorist, who had begun his career with the Muslim Brotherhood, had been actively involved in the 9/11 attacks and succeeded Osama bin Laden after the U.S. Navy SEALs killed him in 2011.
Zawahiri’s reign coincided with a turbulent time in the region amid the rebellions in the Arab states and an internal challenge in the jihadist world with the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS). During this time, critics questioned whether Al-Qaeda remained relevant in terms of international security and if it could even survive under Zawahiri’s famously uncharismatic leadership. Zawahiri ultimately did succeed in keeping the organization together, but what comes next?
To assess this question, EER assembled an expert panel:
Afzal Amin: a Commentator on strategy in international conflict and the CEO of London Expertise Ltd.
Tricia Bacon: a former terrorism analyst at the U.S. State Department and now an Associate Professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs, as well as a fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.
Ajmal Souhail: a national security analyst and co-president of the Counter Narco-terrorism Alliance in Germany.
Afzal Amin began by noting that Al-Qaeda had emerged out of the struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and had evolved in a way that made it global in vision, rather than fighting for any specified territory. The West’s handling of the jihadist movement, said Amin, who served three tours with the British Armed Forces in Afghanistan since 2001, “consistently focus[es] on the symptoms of this kind of radical ideology and almost never on the root causes”. In this perception, killing off Zawahiri is somewhat beside the point. In Amin’s view, the West has been “fighting the wrong war, again and again”: after 9/11, he believes there should have been an international policing operation to arrest the perpetrators and bring them to trial, rather than a military operation to remove the governments that sponsor jihadism and to rebuild these states in the Western image, which does not apply in the region.
The Western misdiagnosis of the problem, says Amin, is considerably because the West focuses on “what people are saying, rather than what we could be doing”. Amin proposes two corrections: (1) shift to a longer-term thinking about these issues, and ensure these conform to the West’s own values and laws; and (2) actively promote good governance because it is in ungoverned spaces such as Somalia and in places where the state does not have the consent of the governed that armed actors find space to operate.
Ajmal Sohail agreed with this assessment, stressing that the “counter-terrorism” approach of leadership decapitation and other kinetic operations have been tried for a long time under the “War on Terror”, and jihadism has only expanded. What is needed is a “counter-extremism” approach that looks to get at the causes of the phenomenon—notably “lawlessness” and economic-related problems—and ameliorate them. Sohail proposes, in line with what Amin said, sticking to the principles of a counter-extremism program in fighting jihadist terrorism: “prevention, rehabilitation, and reintegration—these are the methods that allow us to not only counter terrorism, but have a safer world”.
Al-Qaeda in Transition: Strengths and Weaknesses
Tricia Bacon emphasized that Al-Qaeda is “at an inflection point” in terms of its development and a lot depends on who replaces Zawahiri. But Al-Qaeda does have some advantages, specifically its affiliate network. In Zawahiri’s time, Al-Qaeda lost two affiliates and created one new one, but even at the height of the Islamic State (ISIS) challenge, when ISIS held territory and was in many ways a more attractive option, in general the affiliates stayed loyal—something that “isn’t remarked upon enough” as an achievement of Zawahiri’s tenure. Al-Qaeda under Zawahiri is also able to claim a part in the victory in Afghanistan, even if one’s analysis suggests their part was smaller than they suggest. And Al-Qaeda has a safe haven in Afghanistan, albeit, as Zawahiri’s death shows, not completely, notes Ms. Bacon.
By Bacon’s analysis, on the downside for Al-Qaeda it has not been able to carry out a major attack in the West for many years and its main safe haven is located away from the heart of the Muslim world, unlike ISIS which operates in the areas sacred to Islamic historiography—and, more practically, closer to Europe.
This is, notes Bacon, only Al-Qaeda’s second leadership transition; the first was to Zawahiri from Osama bin Laden in 2011. Bin Laden was a “quintessential founding leader”, said Bacon: he created the ideology and tactics—”the how and why of an organization”. “All founders do this, and Bin Laden did this for longer than most founders and more thoroughly than most founders”, according to Bacon. In terms of successor, there are a number of types of leaders terrorist organizations can have and Bacon sketches them out:
- Figureheads: essentially an absentee leader, either because of health or counter-terrorism pressure, who are not actively guiding the direction of their organization.
- Caretakers: these leaders do not make anything except incremental changes to the ideology and tactics or their organizations. Such leaders provide continuity, and in a period where an organization is struggling for survival, this can be useful.
- Signallers: these leaders make changes to the messaging and framing of an organization ideologically, but tend to make minimal changes to the tactics
- Fixers: these leaders largely retain the ideological outlook and messaging, but change the tactics of an organization to—by their lights—make it more effective in reaching the goals set out by the ideology.
- Visionaries: these leaders revamp both the ideology and tactics of an organization they inherit control of.
These leadership classifications essentially track—in ascending order—the degree to which leaders make discontinuous changes, either to the ideology of an organization or to its “how”, “its tactics and how it mobilizes resources”. Bacon identifies Zawahiri as a caretaker—and for periods a figurehead—who made very few changes to the organization. It is unclear if a dynamic leader could have done more, Bacon goes on, but Zawahiri achieved the main goal of keeping Al-Qaeda alive through a tumultuous period. “But what becomes clear at this juncture is that Al-Qaeda, in order to resurge and rejuvenate, does need a more dynamic kind of leader”, Bacon states.
Looking ahead, Bacon cautions that we can know very little about who will lead Al-Qaeda next, in two senses: first, because clandestine organizations frequently select leaders who have internal credibility but who are unknown to outsiders (this has happened with essentially every ISIS transition of power—2006, 2010, 2019, and 2022—after the founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed), and, secondly, because even if an organization chooses somebody who is known outside the organization, there is no guarantee that as leader they will act in ways that would be expected given their past behaviour. Zawahiri is just such a case: he was not, as Al-Qaeda leader, what one would have anticipated knowing his history, not only ideologically but as administrator of Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
Bacon summarizes: it is not certain that Al-Qaeda will resurge after Zawahiri, but caution is needed because a number of organizations—the Taliban and ISIS most obviously—have been declared dead, only to quite spectacularly revive later on.
Ajmal Sohail outlined a similar view, namely that Al-Qaeda has a number of paths open to it with the next leader. Western attacks on the leadership have often assumed this will weaken the organization, but this has not always proven to be true. Sometimes it does, by severing the links between the centre and the cells, or in this case the affiliates. But, sometimes, somebody more capable rises through. Sohail also draws attention to the strength of the affiliates, and the strength of their loyalty to Al-Qaeda central, giving the example from Africa of Somalia where Al-Qaeda’s Al-Shabab can threaten global commerce by piracy against the shipping lanes. It is possible—which Ms. Bacon also pointed out—that an affiliate leader will succeed Zawahiri.
Amin was more sceptical of the Horn of Africa positionality as a factor in assessing Al-Qaeda—and, indeed, of the importance of Al-Qaeda’s next leader in general, since the threat from global counter-terrorism actors is so severe.
Intelligence and Intentions
Ajmal Sohail noted in his presentation the close relationship between the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and the Taliban, and Zawahiri being protected by the so-called Haqqani Network, a particularly virulent faction of the Taliban that is entirely intermingled with Al-Qaeda and is especially tightly controlled by the ISI. It is therefore evident that the ISI knew where Zawahiri was long before the Americans, says Sohail, and the question is why the ISI gave up Zawahiri at the moment it did. In Sohail’s view, it was because of the economic hardships—and now the terrible floods—in Pakistan, which means the state needs some international goodwill; the timing also worked for the U.S., he added, with the mid-term elections approaching and the need to deflect some of the criticism on the first anniversary of the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The issue of Pakistan’s role in the catastrophe in Afghanistan and potential influence in the succession within Al-Qaeda was expanded upon within the question-and-answer period. The experts also discussed the issue of whether the next leader of Al-Qaeda even matters, given the pressures the group is under, and the potential for Al-Qaeda to regenerate a global terrorist capacity.