By Simeone Miller
It has been two months since a U.S. Air Force-operated drone launched an airstrike on a safe house not far from the former U.S. embassy in Kabul. The lone victim of this strike was al-Qaeda Emir Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had long eluded U.S. counterterrorism efforts, even in the wake of the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011.
While this successful strike is worth celebrating, it does not mean that the Salafi-Jihadist threat will ultimately collapse. Rather, it will more likely lead to another political shift among global jihadis that may be similar in scope to what we observed after the death of Bin Laden.
Al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden agreed on al-Zawahiri’s succession in 2001, so Bin Laden’s death in 2001 was followed by a seamless transition. Since al-Zawahiri’s death, U.S. intelligence has not been able to discern whether al-Zawahiri or al-Qaeda’s Hittin Committee has formally designated someone to run the foreign terrorist organization. This uncertainty is because the committee is facing challenges in identifying suitable candidates. After all, the United States has killed most options and its allies in recent years, including Abdelmalek Droukdel, Asim Umar, and Qassim al-Raymi.
The remaining candidates will need to launch campaigns for legitimacy among al-Qaeda’s disparate franchises. This new candidate will also not have the same institutional support or relationships with regional franchises as Bin Laden, Zawahiri, or the advisory Shura Council. Without experience in the Shura Council, it will be much harder for this new emir to coordinate al-Qaeda’s various international operations cohesively. This council acts similarly to the National Security Council, which advises the President of the United States. The new emir will lack the guidance from which al-Zawahiri and Bin Laden benefitted.
Nonetheless, there are three main candidates to run al-Qaeda: First, there is the old-guard veteran with years of connections, Sayf al-Adl; alternatively, there is al-Zawahiri’s son-in-law and accomplished propagandist, Abd al-Rahman Maghrebi; finally, there is the reformer of al-Shabaab, Ahmed Diriye.
To offset the institutional challenges of a weakened Shura Council, al-Qaeda may recognize Sayf al-Adl as the new emir. As a veteran of al-Qaeda’s old guard, some of his most significant contributions to the organization’s activities include training Somalian militants prior to the Black Hawk Down incident in 1993 and the 1998 Kenyan Embassy bombing. He also ran numerous al-Qaeda training camps in the 1980s and 1990s, where he was able to come into contact with al-Qaeda in Iraq’s founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Al-Zarqawi’s more extreme tactics would later serve as an inspiration for the brutality employed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Since these activities and the start of the Global War on Terror in 2001, al-Adl reportedly fled from U.S. forces in Afghanistan and has maintained refuge in Iran. According to a report from the U.N. Security Council, it remains unclear whether Iranian authorities will allow him to leave Iran and assume command of the organization. Tehran has shared a limited but strained tactical relationship with al-Qaeda that dates back to the 1990s. If Iranian authorities keep al-Adl from assuming leadership, the other likely candidates could be two recognized African al-Qaeda veterans from the North African al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM) or the East African group al-Shabaab.
Abd al-Rahman Maghrebi—al-Zawahiri’s son-in-law and a member of AQIM’s propaganda arm—could be another name that members of the Hittin Committee will consider. He is allegedly hiding in Iran, which might keep him stationary. However, his propaganda experience is crucial at a time when the Islamic State is ridiculing the declining al-Qaeda organization. The Hittin Committee may seek a larger overhaul than propaganda or deep connections, which may turn its focus to East Africa.
Ahmed Diriye has led a significant resurgence in al-Shabaab’s activities since 2014. The startling success of his leadership in Somalia may be the type of energy al-Qaeda may seek to reassert internationally. However, he is African and not native to Afghanistan-Pakistan, which has largely served as al-Qaeda’s primary area of operations.
With Diriye’s aspirations of supporting al-Qaeda’s greater ambitions, he may provide the organization with an opportunity to change course on the perception that it has neglected Africa and African jihadis. This belief in neglect has been a central challenge for other African al-Qaeda affiliates including AQIM. Since AQIM shifted to West Africa, it has seen challenges to its influence as a consequence of its ethnic Sahelian members objecting to AQIM’s perceived favoritism towards Arabs who primarily serve in senior leadership positions.
With both Maghrebi and Diriye, this transition may not be a stable one unless al-Qaeda decides that it must become more inclusive towards the idea of adopting an African leader like Diriye or Maghrebi. If it were to transition more towards Africa, it would indicate an intent to exploit the continent’s instability. By developing strategies for a resurgence like al-Shabaab’s, it could more effectively compete with rival Salafi-Jihadi groups like the Islamic State which has in the past absorbed al-Qaeda affiliates in the region such as the Egyptian Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis.
A second factor that may further complicate the transition would be the emergence of another member of al-Qaeda’s old guard, Amin ul-Haq in Afghanistan. Ul-Haq’s role in the potential succession crisis is that of a dark horse candidate with substantial political capital that undermines the viability of the other three. Much of this political capital stems from ul-Haq’s previous ties to Bin Laden who appointed him to serve as a security chief and a leader of al-Qaeda’s Black Guard. Prior to this, ul-Haq was an intermediary between Bin Laden and local Afghan jihadis who welcomed the emir to Afghanistan after he fled U.S. authorities in Sudan. Both of these things may appeal to members of the Hittin and Shura Council who may have an interest in preserving al-Qaeda’s influence among jihadis in Afghanistan.
An Opportunity for the Islamic State
Since al-Zawahiri’s death, rival organizations such as the Islamic State have been working to usurp al-Qaeda’s influence among Salafi-Jihadis. Consequently, they have been celebrating his death on social media channels. Some of the posts on these social media networks have included accusations that al-Zawahiri was a traitor and a puppet of Western intelligence agencies.
Others on these networks have made threats that the Islamic State Khurasan Province (ISKP) will increase its attacks against the Taliban. Similarly, the Islamic State may recruit members of both al-Qaeda and the Taliban who could become convinced that al-Zawahiri’s leadership was detrimental to the preservation of the jihadi cause.
As human rights observers have noted, the number of ISKP attacks has spiked since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in August of 2021. Since the withdrawal, Salafi-Jihadists have become emboldened to attack other communities including the Hazara Shi’a community in central Afghanistan and Sikhs in Kabul. It has also initiated numerous attacks against Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In each instance, the ISKP has indicated that it does not feel impeded by the Taliban or al-Qaeda’s efforts to stop them. This could pose a significant security risk to South and Central Asian states even if the Taliban government attempts to cooperate with its neighbors on counter-terrorism efforts.
While the Taliban government in Kabul may have protected al-Zawahiri and possibly other members of al-Qaeda, it is not likely that the organization will recover from this latest in a decade of setbacks. Some terrorism experts suggest that al-Zawahiri was unable to maintain control of al-Qaeda’s affiliates after Bin Laden’s death.
This lack of control became evident as affiliates began to break away from the organization and pursue their own ambitions. This would include high profile al-Qaeda affiliates such as Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. The organization previously pledged loyalty to al-Zawahiri but broke away and rebranded itself as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Others such as AQIM, who previously contributed significant support to al-Qaeda’s operations in Iraq, likewise became further localized to North and West Africa.
The largest of these shifts was the decision of al-Qaeda in Iraq to separate itself and become the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This separation was significantly detrimental for al-Qaeda capabilities and credibility among jihadis worldwide. The Islamic State now seeks to overwhelm and replace the wavering al-Qaeda. Perhaps, this is because al-Zawahiri lacked the charismatic authority and ability to yield compliance from broad constituencies like his predecessor. That was not his job, as much as it was to serve as a strategic leader to complement Bin Laden and serve as a caretaker for the organization in Bin Laden’s eventual absence.
As al-Qaeda’s role in the global jihadist landscape diminishes, the United States is presented with the challenge of understanding what challenges that may present and how to respond to it. At present, the only possible theory that may exist would be a transition that will be marked by a long-term succession crisis, competition from a more violent competitor like the Islamic State, and a possible regional recalibration to Africa. All of these are factors which may lead to further instability that will especially threaten U.S. interests and partners in Africa.
Simeone Miller is a contributing writer for the Realist Review. He is a current Social Sciences and Globalization graduate student at California State University, San Bernardino. He previously served as an undergraduate researcher with the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. Views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not reflect any official position by California State University, San Bernardino or the California State University system.