The missile strike to degrade the threat al-Qaeda poses by killing its head Ayman al-Zawahiri is notable and important. But the international community would be in grave danger to see this as ending al-Qaeda’s threat or defining a moment of “closure”. Al-Qaeda’s threat has evolved and changed. Its presence and activity in the Middle East, particularly in Yemen, and in Africa pose a significant threat to the West’s international interests. We need to do more to tackle terrorism, not less, in light of al-Zawahiri’s death.
First, the good news. Al-Zawahiri was an architect of 9/11 and the key phase of al-Qaeda’s direct threat to the West. His demise is a milestone, just as the killing of Osama bin Laden was in 2011 and that of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was in 2019. Symbolically the US strike should now help turn a page: the West and its allies have significantly reduced the capability al-Qaeda has to stage what is known in the industry as “a classic directed international attack”, of the kind we saw in 2001 and the years following. But now it is time to understand al-Qaeda through a lens much wider than the 9/11 attacks.
Now for the more difficult news. Al-Zawahiri had become an intellectual figurehead rather than a highly revered strategic operative. His death, while significant, is likely therefore to have little operational impact on al-Qaeda’s capabilities. Though no doubt some consolation for the families of the victims of 9/11, his death, for a variety of reasons, can be far from “closure”, if we honestly assess al-Qaeda’s activities and global presence today, and if we understand who is now most likely to replace him.
It took the group a month to announce al-Zawahiri as Osama bin Laden’s successor in 2011, which would become al-Qaeda’s most challenging year yet. The group was further taken by surprise as mass protests across the Arab world forced the deposition of leaders of regimes it had long claimed could only be toppled by violence and terrorism. It is safe to say al-Qaeda faced a leadership and strategy crisis in the month prior to and following Osama bin Laden’s death. The result, though, as we now know, was not the decline of the global jihadist movement, as many pundits had professed with great confidence, but rather a resurgence – spearheaded not by al-Qaeda but by a more zealous incarnation we now call ISIS.
By the time al-Zawahiri took the mantle of leader of al-Qaeda, the group had begun a re-examination of its strategy in the face of a world in great flux. We know this from the Abbottabad papers captured during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. Over the past decade and more, we have watched ISIS absorb the spotlight as the most notorious terrorist group of our time. But behind the scenes we have witnessed al-Qaeda factions in Syria, Libya and Yemen, and across the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, regain the upper hand and re-establish their “rightful” place as the forefathers of the global jihadist movement.
They have done this through well-maintained local patronage networks in the territories in which they operate. And as al-Qaeda has expanded its footprint through global affiliates in today’s many conflicts, competing with its rival ISIS, it has done so with very little dependencies on its central command. Therefore, any blow to al-Qaeda’s top figurehead will do little to confront the insurgencies and disrupt the many plots conceived in the name of the group today.
Al-Qaeda remains as dangerous as it did before the strike, if not more so. Who takes over next – and how the group communicates their new leader’s “credentials” – will be critical to al-Qaeda’s ability to maintain a sense of control in the face of rival factions keen to exploit uncertainty. The most likely candidates to replace al-Zawihiri – al-Qaeda's “number two”, Saif al-Adel, or his deputy and “number three” Abd al-Rahman al-Maghrebi – have important characteristics that could make them far more effective and therefore more deadly than their predecessor.
Both figures are revered by the jihadist community, not as ideologues but as experienced strategists and networkers. The more senior of the two, Saif ul Adl, is known to have masterminded the earliest al-Qaeda operations before 2001 on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. He established key training camps in Sudan and Somalia that enabled al-Qaeda to gain the capabilities to launch the 9/11 attacks, and he laid the foundations for the group’s first franchise in Yemen. Both men are believed to have been based out of Iran on-and-off for the past 20 years, and both have played a hand in orchestrating “classic directed international attacks” of the kind that made al-Qaeda the most feared global terrorist entity before the 2010s.
With so much attention paid to ISIS in recent years, the West remains on the back foot in terms of understanding and responding to al-Qaeda as a serious and escalating threat. One significant observation over the past 15 to 20 years in counter-terrorism is that Islamist terrorist organisations have adapted as fast as our counter-strategies against them have evolved. Al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups have proven to be the most adaptive of all the hundreds of terrorist groups in action today. Their operations in Yemen, Afghanistan and Syria, for example, have shown a more sophisticated long-term operation at play, securing in-roads with state and non-state actors over the past decade and building a degree of legitimacy – albeit small and tenuous – among locals in the territories they now maintain.
For al-Qaeda leadership since 2010, warfare and welfare have come hand-in-hand and the distinction between al-Qaeda operative and local community leader has become increasingly blurred. Just as the West’s reliance on targeted drone-assisted assassinations of key leadership has increased, AQ’s reliance on single iconic personalities for credibility and legitimacy has notably reduced. Unlike ISIS, al-Qaeda does not hang the group’s legitimacy on one leader’s credibility as a rightful caliph. Increasingly, their most dangerous armoury is in their networks and the relationships they have built for generations. And the loyalties that come with that, as we see with today’s Taliban, can one day be called upon to rapidly accelerate their capabilities to do great harm.
Even if we see, as a result of this blow to the group, an al-Qaeda in turmoil, the group’s most significant capability today remains its ability to cause and exacerbate conflicts that impact Western security indirectly on multiple fronts. We see this in today’s Africa, the Middle East and increasingly South and South-East Asia – and no longer is al-Qaeda restricted to operation in major conflict zones and failed states. Together, the group’s many affiliates actively undermine the security of the infrastructure, economies and states on whose future the West increasingly depends. This strike should be a critical moment for the West in recalibrating an approach to al-Qaeda; one that matches the short-, medium- and long-term threat the group has come to pose.