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Ayman al-Zawahiri was the ultimate survivor—until he wasn’t. For 20 years, a parade of other jihadist leaders—including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Osama bin Laden, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and Anwar al-Awlaki—came to violent ends at the hands of U.S. forces. But Zawahiri stayed alive, seemingly invulnerable to American intelligence and drones.
Then, this past Sunday, the man who succeeded bin Laden as the emir of al Qaeda in 2011 finally met his fate, struck by two Hellfire missiles while standing on the balcony of a safe house in the Afghan capital, Kabul. According to U.S. President Joe Biden, who announced the successful strike in a televised address on Monday night, there were no civilian casualties.
For the United States, the killing of Zawahiri puts an end to a chapter in the U.S.-led war on terror aimed at bringing to justice those responsible for the 9/11 attacks, even if Zawahiri’s role in planning those attacks has sometimes been exaggerated. And the fact that Zawahiri was in Kabul—and that U.S. intelligence was able to target him there—revives long-simmering debates about the decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan and how to approach the Taliban regime. For al Qaeda, Zawahiri’s death poses an immediate, short-term challenge regarding succession, and a more difficult, longer-term challenge of resolving a host of internal tensions and contradictions that the organization has glossed over for years.
Born in 1951 outside Cairo, Zawahiri hailed from a wealthy and prestigious Egyptian family. His father, Muhammad, was a surgeon, and young Zawahiri would follow him in the profession, graduating from Cairo University with a medical degree in 1974. His true calling, however, was the cause of jihad, as embodied by armed struggle against the Egyptian state, whose rulers he believed had committed apostasy by virtue of not implementing sharia and enjoying friendly relations with infidel states, including Israel. This ideology drove the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981, an event in which Zawahiri was implicated but played no real role. After spending some four years in prison, during which he was subjected to torture and compelled to testify against fellow jihadis, Zawahiri emerged in the late 1980s as the leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), also known as the Jihad Group, an Egyptian organization in exile that sought to topple the Egyptian government. In the 1990s, Zawahiri took refuge in Afghanistan and drew close to bin Laden, eventually merging his organization with that of the wealthy Saudi. A formal merger took place in June 2001, shortly before the 9/11 attacks, yielding the name Qaedat al-Jihad, which is still the official name of al Qaeda.
In Afghanistan, Zawahiri would discard his strategy of regional jihad in favor of the global fight pursued by bin Laden, who stipulated that attacking the United States and the West was the prerequisite for revolution in the Muslim world. Only by striking the United States and driving its military and diplomatic power from the region, the thinking went, would it be possible to achieve the desired change at home. The concept was the basis for the 9/11 attacks and has continued to be the rallying cry of al Qaeda, even though the group has failed to execute the strategy successfully for the last 20 years, including under the leadership of Zawahiri.
Zawahiri will be remembered for many things, including numerous ideological texts and several hefty tomes on history and religion. These include a 500-page memoir titled Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner and a more recent 850-page book on Islamic political theory and the history of Western missionary efforts in the Middle East. He also leaves behind a sizable collection of speeches and lectures captured on video or audio totaling hundreds of hours, if not more. He was not, however, particularly eloquent. Indeed, Zawahiri was strikingly lacking in charisma, and his media output—ceaseless, ponderous, repetitive—probably did more to hurt his reputation than to enhance it.
So productive was Zawahiri that one wonders how he had time to manage the affairs of a global terrorist organization—a fact that speaks to the most controversial aspect of his legacy: the rise of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), which came to eclipse al Qaeda as the world’s most influential jihadist organization. When Zawahiri assumed the leadership of al Qaeda after bin Laden’s death in 2011, it was the uncontested leader of the global jihadi movement. By late 2014, that was no longer the case, and even today, ISIS retains a far stronger jihadist brand—an outcome that Zawahiri helped bring about.
The most controversial aspect of Zawahiri’s legacy is the rise of the ISIS.
In mid-2013, Zawahiri set out to settle a dispute between two rival subordinates in Iraq and Syria. Baghdadi had announced the expansion of the al Qaeda offshoot that he led, the Islamic State of Iraq, to Syria, establishing what he called the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. The leader of a Syrian branch of al Qaeda called Jabhat al-Nusra, however, balked at the perceived intrusion, publicly appealing to Zawahiri to intervene. In a letter that was obtained and released by Al Jazeera in 2013, Zawahiri ordered Baghdadi to retract his claim and restrict his activities to Iraq. But Baghdadi resisted, claiming that the order was contrary to sharia. Not long afterward, ISIS would declare that Zawahiri and al Qaeda had deviated from the true jihadist path by going soft on apostate Muslim rulers and on Shiites, whom Sunni jihadists saw as deviant schismatics. A year later, ISIS declared itself a renewed caliphate, seizing major cities and vast swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria and capturing the world’s attention—and the imaginations of jihadist sympathizers throughout the Muslim world, thousands of whom traveled to the region to join the group.
Two years later, the Syrian branch of al Qaeda that Zawahiri had intervened to save also left the fold as it sought a greater role in the Syrian rebellion against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. Seeking to cater to a broader audience and reassure new allies, its leaders renounced the oath of allegiance they had pledged to Zawahiri, who complained loudly and publicly about this act of betrayal. Just like that, al Qaeda had lost its presence in the heart of the Arab world. Zawahiri’s authority had been challenged twice, and twice he had lost. Meanwhile, compounding the group’s decline were the deaths—by drone strikes—of a number of senior figures who had sought refuge in Syria.
Of course, not all was going well for ISIS at this time, either. By 2019, the caliphate had lost control of its last redoubts in Iraq and Syria, and in October of that year, U.S. forces killed Baghdadi. In February of this year, they eliminated his successor, as well.
Zawahiri’s tenure was not a complete shambles. Under his leadership, al Qaeda’s franchises in North Africa, Somalia, and Yemen resisted the ISIS pull and remained loyal, and new branches formed in South Asia and Mali, the latter of which has been particularly active. But even as Zawahiri could claim a measure of success in holding the network together, there was no denying that he had overseen a period during which al Qaeda had been surpassed by a rival and seen its core leadership decimated. Nor had Zawahiri achieved his main goal: attacking the United States. As the scholar Nelly Lahoud has shown, al Qaeda’s central leadership has not directed a successful attack on the United States since 9/11, and its last successful act of international terrorism took place in 2002 in Mombasa, Kenya—an operation that was planned before 9/11.
The return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan in August 2021, however, seemed like it might reverse al Qaeda’s fortunes. Al Qaeda praised the restoration of Taliban rule as a dramatic victory for the cause of global jihad, and many worry that the Taliban will provide the space for the group to consolidate and rebuild. Those worries are surely justified, though the group’s ties to the Taliban are complex. As the Pentagon recently reported: “While al-Qaeda’s leaders have longstanding relationships with senior Taliban leaders, the group maintains limited capabilities to travel and train within Afghanistan and is likely restricted due to the Taliban’s efforts to achieve international legitimacy.” Those restrictions may well expire “over the next 12 to 24 months,” according to the Pentagon, but they reflect the fact that although the groups’ interests have often overlapped, they are not identical. Al Qaeda seeks to destroy the international system; the Taliban seeks to join it (even if only to subvert it). One of Zawahiri’s final videos was a thinly veiled critique of the Taliban for seeking to represent Afghanistan at the United Nations, an organization that he saw as representing a global system of unbelief that needed to be destroyed, not joined.
A current of distrust has long run through al Qaeda’s relationship with the Taliban. Documents recovered from the compound in Pakistan where U.S. forces killed bin Laden in 2011 show that he was concerned with the direction of the Taliban leadership, which he saw as divided between a camp of pious believers and a hypocritical faction doing the bidding of Pakistani intelligence—and perhaps willing to sell al Qaeda out. This echoed the concerns of other Arab jihadists: in the late 1990s, for instance, the Syrian jihadist strategist Abu Musab al-Suri complained that a faction of the Taliban leadership wanted nothing to do with global jihad and sought only to create in Afghanistan a conservative state akin to that of Saudi Arabia. The ISIS leadership has taken a more aggressive stance, arguing that the anti-jihadist part of the Taliban is now firmly in control. Since Zawahiri’s death was announced, ISIS supporters online have heaped mockery on him for believing that the Taliban would protect him, suggesting that the group had instead served him up on a silver platter for the Americans.
Such claims are overblown. The Taliban is not a pro-American movement, and its leadership did not want Zawahiri killed. The house where Zawahiri was targeted was reportedly owned by a top aide to Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Taliban government’s interior minister; Zawahiri was likely there at his invitation. But someone else in the Taliban, perhaps, was more interested in the $25 million bounty offered by Washington than in protecting the aging jihadist leader. The fact that Zawahiri was in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan raises questions about the Taliban’s pledges to prevent its territory from being used to launch terrorist attacks. But the fact that U.S. forces were able to kill him there casts doubt on the idea that Afghanistan can serve as a platform for an al Qaeda revival—even if the Taliban were to allow one. Evidently, the United States still has eyes and ears on the ground in Afghanistan and plenty of willing collaborators—perhaps even within the Taliban.
The greatest challenge facing al Qaeda in the near term will be succession. The next in line, most analysts believe, is the younger Egyptian militant Saif al-Adel, who has been living in Iran since shortly after the 9/11 attacks. After him comes Abd al-Rahman al-Maghrebi, Zawahiri’s Moroccan son-in-law and the head of al Qaeda’s media operations, who is also based in Iran. The fact that both reside in Iran is not immaterial. Although they may not be there willingly, their presence there complicates their potential ascension. Iran is ostensibly an enemy of al Qaeda, whose followers revile Iranian Shiites and the country’s security forces as apostate “rejectionists” who have run roughshod over the Middle East, massacring Sunnis in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. It would be a hard sell for al Qaeda to present its next leader as running the show from quasi house arrest in Iran, which would encourage suspicions that the group was under Tehran’s thumb.
Perhaps, then, the next leader will instead hail from one of the al Qaeda affiliate groups. The line of succession, according to a recent UN report, names Yazid Mebrak in North Africa and Ahmed Diriye in Somalia as next in line, after the two Iran-based leaders. But in Iran, Adel and Maghrebi, long operating in the shadows, may not wish to relinquish authority to the regional affiliates. Nor is it clear that the affiliate leaders would be interested in taking up the mantle, as they have not demonstrated a commitment to Zawahiri’s “far enemy” strategy.
What comes next for al Qaeda, then, is unclear. The group is unlikely to fold, as the brand still offers a great deal of jihadist legitimacy for its regional affiliates, providing an identity and flag around which to rally. But the group will no longer be able to ignore problems that have festered ever since the 9/11 attacks: the inconvenient relationship with Iran, the distrust and lack of alignment with part of the Taliban, and the absence of a shared strategy among the central leadership and the affiliates. Running a global organization of ideologically committed militants has never been easy—and for al Qaeda, it just got much harder.
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