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Al-Zawahiri’s Death and its Impact on the Future of Al-Qaeda

11 Aug 2022
By Dr Michael G. Zekulin
Osama bin Laden (L) sits with his adviser and purported successor Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Source: Hamid Mir,  Wikimedia,

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed by a drone strike late last month. While his death is significant, it is unlikely to be the death knell of his terrorist network.

News that a US drone strike killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri created a myriad of reactions: celebration, sense of justice, and perhaps even closure, as Zawahiri represented the last remaining true link to the 9/11 attacks.  But what should we make of this event? Is it as consequential as some believe? While this an important accomplishment, it has created unknowns which need to be unpacked. One thing we know for certain is it would be a mistake to believe this is the death knell of al-Qaeda. There are several possibilities we need to consider, but most importantly, we need to understand this event within the context of the terrorist threat we face today and may face tomorrow.

It begins by acknowledging that the al-Qaeda of today is no longer the group it once was. The group that orchestrated the 9/11 attacks ‒ ostensibly known as al-Qaeda “core” ‒ was significantly weakened and scattered following US actions in Afghanistan in the early 2000s. The result was the emergence of multiple franchises in the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia, one of the most noted being al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). These franchises have their own leadership structure, and their goals are often local ones. Many who study terrorism believe that AQAP is the only one which poses any legitimate international threat at this point. Considering that al-Zawahiri represented one of the last members of al-Qaeda “core,” his elimination may be less important than we think. “Core” membership had become small, mostly elderly, and mostly symbolic.

Is this the end of al-Qaeda? This is highly unlikely. In addition to what the group has become, we must also remember that more than anything, these are belief communities which persist despite the loss of any one member, ever senior leadership. The group survived Osama bin Laden’s death in 2011.

Might we witness another evolution? Groups adapt and evolve, and a change in leadership presents an opportunity to change directions. There exists a longstanding debate within the field of terrorism studies regarding the effectiveness of targeted assassination, or “de-capitation” of terror group leadership. While some argue that it puts groups on the back foot, forcing them to focus on re-organising, and deters the likelihood individuals will step forward to become leaders, there are sometimes repercussions for altering the status quo. From this perspective, how might new leadership change the current path of al-Qaeda and its influence on its franchises? Zawahiri was not a very charismatic individual, nor was he effective at connecting with the younger generation. A new leader might not have these shortcomings. The trajectory of the movement might shift dangerously with a new and more effective communicator, reaching and inspiring a new generation. We have seen this previously. Anwar al-Awlaki re-invigorated AQAP in the late 2000s, reaching new audiences in new ways and identifying with Westerners in particular. Ironically, a new leader might benefit the movement, offering an opportunity to reinvigorate itself.

Is it possible we observe an alignment with ISIS or other Islamist-inspired groups? Beneath the surface, many Islamist-inspired groups share a common end goal – the re-establishment of the Caliphate. While there is, and has always been, competition among these groups, there were interesting and unique dynamics which exacerbated tensions between al-Qaeda and ISIS. This included the personal relationship, more accurately the acrimony and personal dislike al-Zawahiri and ISIS leader Baghdadi had towards one another. Briefly, Zawahiri erroneously believed he had a mandate to oversee and “command” ISIS, infuriating Baghdadi who publicly questioned Zawahiri’s leadership credentials and legitimacy. New leaders, less constrained by personal grievances, might recognise a tactical opportunity and investigate cooperation or collaboration.

Despite the current resurgence and focus on right-wing inspired extremism and terrorism, the West should not neglect the threat posed by Islamist-inspired terrorism. Western departure from Afghanistan re-constituted a safe haven for Islamist-inspired groups, evidenced by the fact Zawahiri was targeted outside of Kabul. The underlying conditions which led to the emergence and growth of ISIS in Iraq and Syria still largely exist as does the presence of former fighters. There is one additional wildcard lurking below the surface. Food insecurity and energy shortages currently occurring in the West also exist in other parts of the world, particularly parts of the world where Islamist-inspired groups have or had previously enjoyed support. These countries do not have the same abilities to absorb these shocks as Western countries, which might lead to increased de-stabilisation and potential collapse. This presents an opportunity for groups like al-Qaeda to spread their extremist ideology, increase their membership, and accrue resources for the next cycle.

In the end, we just do not know how consequential al-Zawahiri’s death might be. We must be cautious of any number of possibilities which might arise; the least likely being that it has caused irreparable harm to al-Qaeda or its ideology.

Dr Michael G. Zekulin is a senior lecturer in The School of Politics and International Relations at the Australian National University.  His research focuses on terrorism, radicalisation and CVE strategies.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.