With Zawahiri’s death, the curtain falls on Al Qaeda’s first generation of leaders in Afghanistan and Khorasan. But the biggest question now is: how will his death shape the future trajectory of Al Qaeda? Towards gradual decay and total collapse? Or will it be able to marshal its forces and reinvent itself in a new world order?
However, Al Qaeda’s collapse had begun long before Zawahiri’s death, and he had only been riding an old, toothless tiger pushed into a corner by sustained military pressure from the US and the emergence of an even more fanatical terrorist outfit, Daesh.
Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the US Embassy bombing of 1998, and the subsequent coalition campaign against the Al Qaeda in Afghanistan that brought about the fall of the Taliban, Al Qaeda’s leadership was forced to go underground to evade US targeting. In doing so, Al Qaeda lost its centralised capacity for planning and executing major terrorist attacks. This was especially the case after losing the Taliban’s support.
Al Qaeda’s leadership was forced to shuttle between Pakistan and Iran and became more of glorified ‘officials’ who were left to circulate general policy decisions. Intelligence gathered from Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, following his assassination in 2011, showed how he was forced to abandon radical moves to ensure his own safety.
Bin Laden’s elimination left Al Qaeda without a powerful central command and this led to the rise of many parallel power centres in the outfit’s regional units. The international manhunt against Al Qaeda’s functionaries also saw its funding networks cut off, leaving the organisation without access to its war chest.
The terrorist organisation Daesh’s rise to prominence also saw the emergence of a more powerful propaganda machine that could indoctrinate and attract youngsters to its fold at the expense of Al Qaeda.
This would compromise Al Qaeda’s military presence. The loss of high-ranking leaders, who were the main pillars of its ideological grounding, will also affect its future recruitment, especially when a rival terror group like Daesh has emerged as an alternative.
Despite being ideological by origin, Al Qaeda nonetheless places a significant and symbolic leadership role that is particularly vital to its cohesion. As such, the assassination of Zawahiri thrusts Al Qaeda into a major crisis of leadership as it seeks an individual to lead the organisation gravitas similar to Osama bin Laden or an aptitude for struggle like Ayman al Zawahiri.
In this regard, a possible candidate for replacement could be Saif al Adel, a former Egyptian colonel with far-ranging military experience. However, his presence in Iran could curtail his movement and ability to marshal and restore the organisation.
It’s also noteworthy that Al Qaeda has long ceased targeting civilians in the West since September 11 and subsequent terrorist attacks targeting subway tunnels in the United Kingdom and Spain in 2004 and 2005, respectively.
There has been a marked shift among Al Qaeda’s leaders, from targeting the US to making use of opportunities to score political victories impacting the American voter.
Following the Doha agreement of 2020, the Taliban agreed to prevent any organisation, especially Al Qaeda, from launching attacks on the US from Afghan territory. This would indicate that the Taliban’s politics can only maintain Al Qaeda’s activities.
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