Thursday August 11, 2022
The U.S. has claimed a drone strike killing al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a Kabul house. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Jerome Drevon explores what this event may mean for the movement and its affiliates.
What do we know about Zawahiri’s death?
On 2 August, U.S. President Joe Biden announced that the U.S. had killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul on the morning of 31 July. The U.S. said it had discovered that Zawahiri had returned to the Afghan capital with his family in the spring of 2022, after more than two decades in hiding (as early as 1998, he was wanted for his alleged role in al-Qaeda’s bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa that year). Much of this time, he was widely thought to be sheltering somewhere near the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. U.S. officials said the CIA had been watching the safe house in an upmarket district of Kabul, where the al-Qaeda leader was staying for several months, before proceeding with a precision drone strike. The Taliban have not explicitly acknowledged Zawahiri’s death beyond stating that they had no information about his arrival and stay in the capital.
What was Zawahiri’s role as al-Qaeda leader?
Zawahiri became head of al-Qaeda in 2011, following the U.S. raid in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden.
Prior to al-Qaeda’s 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States that prompted the U.S. “war on terror”, Zawahiri had been a secondary figure in the organisation. Parts of the group that he previously led, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, had merged with al-Qaeda shortly before the 9/11 attacks. Although Zawahiri had been interacting with bin Laden since the 1980s, two other Islamic Jihad commanders were more influential in al-Qaeda. One was Abu Ubayda al-Banshiri, who reportedly proposed the initial concept of al-Qaeda to bin Laden and then became its first military leader, before drowning in a ferry accident in 1996. The other was Abu Ubayda’s successor, Abu Hafs al-Masri, who died in a drone strike in Afghanistan after 9/11. Zawahiri became bin Laden’s deputy after the death of his two former associates.
Zawahiri had a decades-long history in jihadist militancy. He joined his first militant group in 1966 and was associated with the network that assassinated the former Egyptian president, Anwar al-Sadat, in 1981. He was subsequently arrested by the Egyptian authorities before departing for the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan after his release in 1985. An ideologue who authored several manifestoes on theology and politics, Zawahiri was long on the U.S. list of most wanted men. Analysts contest the precise role he played in shaping bin Laden’s agenda and orchestrating attacks, particularly the 9/11 strikes.
Zawahiri was able to keep the loyalty of al-Qaeda’s franchises at a time when the ... ISIS was becoming the most prominent transnational jihadist group.
Zawahiri’s precise role in keeping affiliates loyal is unclear, but his decisions certainly leant into al-Qaeda’s strategy, which predated bin Laden’s death, of allying with local militant groups. He accepted the large Somali militant group Al-Shabaab into al-Qaeda shortly after bin Laden died; Al-Shabaab had wanted to become part of al-Qaeda some years earlier, but bin Laden appears to have had reservations about the group. The Islamist insurgency, which controls swathes of south-central Somalia, is now one of al-Qaeda’s most powerful branches. In 2013, Zawahiri also articulated al-Qaeda’s approach to fighting insurgencies, which very much aligned with the positions promoted by al-Qaeda in Yemen and Mali in 2012. His guidance suggested that affiliates should play a long game, seek to win over communities and avoid excessive violence against Muslim civilians (or certainly less than ISIS), while continuing to target the U.S. and its allies. He provided direct advice to affiliated groups, especially in Syria, though the leaders tended to follow his counsel only when it made sense based on local dynamics.
But Zawahiri could not prevent major splits within al-Qaeda. The most important schism saw al-Qaeda’s Iraq franchise break away and subsequently become ISIS in 2013. The fracture prompted an internecine struggle on several fronts, with ISIS – which had its own local branches – becoming al-Qaeda’s chief jihadist competitor. Significantly, Zawahiri also failed to maintain the allegiance of al-Qaeda’s main affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra – at the time its most influential franchise – despite close ties between its leadership and several individuals from the al-Qaeda core or “general command”. In 2016, Jabhat al-Nusra severed ties with al-Qaeda before transforming itself the following year into Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a group that claimed to be – and indeed thus far is – battling the Syrian regime rather than waging global jihad. Three years later, HTS had detained most of those of its former commanders who had remained faithful to Zawahiri and largely suppressed al-Qaeda as an organisation in Syria.
What should we make of the al-Qaeda leader being located in Kabul?
Following Zawahiri’s death, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken asserted that his presence in Kabul violated the 2020 agreement the Taliban made with the U.S. in the Qatari capital Doha, in which the U.S. pledged to remove its troops from Afghanistan in exchange for promises from the movement.
The Taliban committed in the Doha agreement to prevent any groups or individuals, including al-Qaeda, from “using [Afghanistan’s] soil” for “recruiting, training and fundraising” “to threaten the security of the United States and its allies”. The Taliban also agreed that they would “not host” such groups, though another paragraph adds that they could “deal with those seeking asylum or residence in Afghanistan according to international migration law” as long as “such persons do not pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies” – a provision widely interpreted as a loophole enabling the Taliban to avoid removing foreign militants from the country.
If Zawahiri was indeed fundraising, recruiting or planning and directing external operations, then his presence in Kabul would be a breach of the Taliban’s commitments [to the U.S.].
If Zawahiri was indeed fundraising, recruiting or planning and directing external operations, then his presence in Kabul would be a breach of the Taliban’s commitments. The White House has stated that Zawahiri was providing “guidance to affiliates around the world to target” the U.S. but has not detailed a specific role for Zawahiri in planning operations. His influence was global and his propaganda on al-Qaeda’s behalf could easily be construed as helping with recruiting or fundraising.
It is not completely out of the question that Zawahiri’s presence in Afghanistan was non-operational. Several of his associates told Crisis Group in May that al-Qaeda had decided to abide by the Taliban’s orders against preparing armed attacks from Afghanistan or inciting violence in videos. The latest report from the UN’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team on al-Qaeda and ISIS – regular reporting based on member state intelligence that often contains worst-case views of terrorist threats – similarly suggests that al-Qaeda “lacks an external operational capability and does not currently wish to cause the Taliban international difficulty or embarrassment”. The Taliban might contend that they were hosting Zawahiri on the condition that he did not violate their commitments under the Doha agreement and there may be enough ambiguity in the Doha agreement to make that argument. In any case, the question of whether the Taliban violated that agreement will likely weigh less on their regime’s relations with the West and some regional governments than the simple fact of Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul.
Zawahiri reportedly resided at a property owned by a senior aide to Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Taliban’s acting interior minister. The Haqqani network has intermingled with al-Qaeda since the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s, with the group’s leaders being close to the Haqqani family. Hosting Zawahiri might have more to do with these historical ties than with any support for al-Qaeda in organising external attacks. How many Taliban leaders were aware of Zawahiri’s presence – indeed even whether it was blessed by the group’s leadership in Kandahar – is unclear. The group said it had “no information about Ayman al-Zawahiri’s arrival and stay in Kabul” and that it has “instructed the investigative and intelligence agencies to conduct a comprehensive and serious investigation into the various aspects of the incident”. (Some Taliban officials have privately told Crisis Group that they were “surprised” by the news, but it is difficult to verify how many had that reaction.)
How Zawahiri’s killing will affect the long-term relationship between the Taliban and the U.S. is also uncertain. Each side accuses the other of breaking the Doha agreement, but this event may not change the strategic calculations of either. The Taliban will remain committed to consolidating their rule, trying to maintain order in the country and pursuing economic development. They will keep seeking foreign countries’ recognition of their new regime as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. After the al-Qaeda leader was killed at their doorstep, such recognition – already a distant prospect – grew even less likely. Still, it is notable that neither President Biden nor any other U.S. official lambasted the Taliban in statements immediately following the operation. As a result, the U.S. has not completely closed the door on consideration of options, after the dust settles, for pragmatic engagement with the Taliban on narrow issues of mutual interest. In the long run, Zawahiri’s removal from the scene in Afghanistan might even help the Taliban movement shift attention away from uncomfortable questions about al-Qaeda’s presence in the country – provided that his successor is not based there.
For now, though, the presence of the fugitive al-Qaeda leader seemingly as a guest of a top Taliban minister, if not of the movement itself, is another blot on the already deeply tarnished reputation of the Taliban in Western capitals.
What will al-Qaeda do next?
The immediate challenge for al-Qaeda is to select a new leader. It may not be easy, since Zawahiri’s replacement will need to be accepte by the group’s consultative committee, which is composed of several veterans and the heads of each affiliate and is charged with making strategic decisions. Consensus will be important for forestalling dissent and assuring that all the affiliates renew their allegiance to the organisation. There does not appear to be a named successor. Nor is there an obvious consensus candidate, since no one has the stature of either bin Laden or Zawahiri among the rank and file. These two men had been part of the jihadist movement for decades and were connected to a worldwide militant network that arose during the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The aforementioned UN report lists four main contenders. Saif al-Adl and Abd al-Rahman al-Maghrebi, widely regarded as the most likely candidates, were close to Zawahiri. Al-Adl is himself a seasoned and well-connected al-Qaeda commander. Both men, however, are thought to presently reside in Iran. Many in the movement are likely to question whether either would be able to act independently from Tehran despite some reports suggesting they are no longer under house arrest. Appointing one of them would also risk reinforcing the argument, frequently made by ISIS, that al-Qaeda is an Iranian tool. The two other contenders, Yazid Mebrak (aka Yusuf al-Anabi) and Ahmed Diriye (aka Abu Ubayda), are the heads of al-Qaeda’s affiliates in the Sahel (AQIM) and Somalia, respectively. No affiliate leader has ever headed the movement before. The former leader of al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, was number two and named successor to Zawahiri before his death in 2015, but neither Mebrak or Diriye have Wuhayshi’s stature or ties to bin Laden. The appointment of either could shift the geographic centre of power in al-Qaeda, and one affiliate might block the other’s leadership. In such circumstances, finding a new leader will be difficult, and it is not unthinkable that a relatively unknown figure takes over.
The al-Qaeda core ... appears to be a shadow of its former self and ... has not been able to launch an attack in the West since ... 2019.
Beyond the succession question, al-Qaeda faces potentially a more profound challenge. Bin Laden built the group around the idea of attacking the “far enemy”, namely, the U.S. and its Western allies, on the basis that no Islamic state could rise in a majority-Muslim country as long as foreign powers, especially the U.S., were backing the existing regime. The alignment between fighting the near and far enemy helped al-Qaeda win over recruits, given the anger that aspects of Western policy inspired in much of the Muslim world, while bin Laden’s financing and leadership brought with it expertise and credentials that local militants often craved. That vision has lost much of its relevance over the past decade. The succession of uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa from 2011 onward brought opportunities to battle and even in some cases overthrow hated regimes without having to chase out their foreign backers first. In these circumstances, waging war primarily against foreign powers became redundant or even counterproductive. To some degree, al-Qaeda’s deepening of its affiliate strategy and local approach is a response to this new reality, though Zawahiri always stressed the importance of maintaining focus on the far enemy, even if affiliates mostly ignored this advice. The al-Qaeda core, such as it is, appears to be a shadow of its former self and al-Qaeda as a whole has not been able to launch an attack in the West since the naval air station shooting in Pensacola, Florida in 2019. The previous operation was the 2015 assault on the Charlie Hebdo magazine offices in Paris. Both attacks were linked to al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch.
Indeed, in some places, militant groups have learned that affiliation with transnational groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS can become a burden to insurgents seeking to control territory over the long haul. Among the reasons for HTS’s split from al-Qaeda, for example, were, first, the resistance its al-Qaeda affiliation generated among Syrians and, secondly, the perception among the HTS leadership that the group would stand a greater chance of gaining the international acceptance it deemed necessary if it publicly broke with the global jihadist movement and disavowed external operations. Many Western policymakers continue to view HTS as part of al-Qaeda or at least regard its break with the movement with some suspicion. Still, Western governments have for some years stopped trying to kill the group’s leaders. The conditions imposed by the U.S. in the Doha agreement with the Taliban also suggest that, in the right circumstances, Western leaders will accept Islamists – even those with previous ties to jihadists – holding power, provided they pledge not to host militants that threaten the U.S. and its allies. Of course, a more dynamic new leader might reinvigorate al-Qaeda; certainly, there is plenty of discontent throughout the Muslim world to exploit. Broadly speaking, though, the “far enemy” approach that has traditionally been at the core of al-Qaeda’s identity looks increasingly dated.
How will other al-Qaeda affiliates respond to Zawahiri’s death?
Al-Qaeda’s two big affiliates, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) in the Sahel – of which AQIM is a part – and Al-Shabaab in Somalia, remain its chief sources of strength (the Yemen branch, which of all the al-Qaeda franchises was for years the most externally focused, has lost its influential leaders, appears organisationally weak and is now more absorbed in Yemen’s internal conflict). The Sahel and Somalia branches have survived major military campaigns aimed at their defeat, as well as the deaths of several prominent leaders. They continue to hold territory and to rule civilian populations. There is no reason to think Zawahiri’s death will change their approach to their respective conflicts. JNIM, which has largely been locked in a stalemate with the Malian security forces, is trying to exploit the French withdrawal from Mali to gain the upper hand. Al-Shabaab believes – perhaps erroneously, as Crisis Group has pointed out – that it can prevail in capturing all of Somalia if foreign military support in favour of the Somali government eventually ceases. Barring a major succession dispute, the two groups are likely to renew their allegiance to al-Qaeda to maintain the status quo, avoid internal tensions and prevent dissidence in favour of ISIS. They could use the pending leadership change in al-Qaeda to reinforce their positions within its upper echelons.
Still, a big question with both the main al-Qaeda affiliates is whether and how long their attachment to the global organisation will endure. In the past they have benefited from the affiliation to raise their profile and jihadist credentials, keep internal cohesion, secure commanders’ loyalty and increase their military potency. But al-Qaeda’s general command has limited impact on those affiliates’ operations after the death of successive leaders. Neither of the two big affiliates has traditionally shown much interest in transnational jihad – at least not in attacking Western interests outside their respective regions. JNIM is focused mostly on expelling foreign forces from and establishing Islamist rule in the Sahel. Al-Shabaab aims to do much the same in Somalia, though it does sometimes express pan-Somali ideas and has launched attacks elsewhere in East Africa. Moreover, much evidence, including the UN report, suggest that these groups help al-Qaeda more than the other way around. According to that report, Al-Shabaab uses substantial revenues, evaluated at $24 million for weaponry alone, to fund the al-Qaeda core.
It is not completely implausible that at some point JNIM or Al-Shabaab breaks with al-Qaeda. HTS‘s approach – itself motivated by the recognition that the group’s relations with the outside world were negatively shaped by the al-Qaeda affiliation at a time when the group sought international recognition and a break from drone strikes – might offer a path for other affiliates. True, for now neither JNIM nor Al-Shabaab leaders show any sign of breaking with al-Qaeda. But, as Crisis Group has noted with regard to Mali and Somalia, neither affiliate has completely closed the door to negotiations as a means of achieving its goals. If either wanted to be part of a political settlement, whether in Mali or Somalia, or even simply to hold territory without facing the threat of Western airstrikes, it, too, might eventually come to see the al-Qaeda link as a liability rather than an asset and follow suit in leaving the global movement behind.