Deep Dive

Al Qaeda after Zawahiri: Silent, not dormant

As Al Qaeda and Daesh battle for supremacy in the Salafi-jihadist global movement, Afghanistan will play a symbolic and strategic role, providing many potential recruits for both organizations.
However, under present circumstances, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent and Al Qaeda Core in Afghanistan-Pakistan would find it difficult to openly operate from Afghanistan. Hence, the clash with Daesh Khorasan could provide an opportunity for Al Qaeda to share a common enemy with the Taliban, who might allow more operational freedom to Al Qaeda in return.
In all likelihood, whoever becomes the next Al Qaeda leader will have to come to a pragmatic agreement with the Taliban leadership: Accept a limited advisory role in exchange for protection and the possibility to consolidate the organization.

Read time: 7 min.
28.09.2022

Al Qaeda is experiencing a difficult period of succession after the death of Ayman Al Zawahiri in a US drone strike in Kabul on July 31. Zawahiri had led the group since the killing of Osama Bin Laden in 2011. The appointment of the next leader is the crucial stage as it may pave the way for a new strategy for the organization.

One of the top contenders for the post is Saif Al Adel, a 62-year-old Egyptian veteran of the group, who was the military strategist for the old guard. He is said to currently be under house arrest in Iran. The choice of Adel for leader will be seen as ensuring continuity between the Zawahiri and post-Zawahiri stage. However, Bin Laden had cast doubts about Adel’s suitability for leadership.

Adel’s presence in Iran would also be an issue for Al Qaeda, as the organization’s leaders, such as Abu Mohammed Al Masri, have previously been assassinated in the country. Al Masri had reportedly been next in line to succeed Zawahiri at that time. 

After Adel, the second in line potentially is Abdur Rahman Al Maghrebi. He is Zawahiri’s son-in-law and former head of Al Qaeda’s media arm Al Sahab. Maghrebi is also believed to be currently coordinating between different branches of Al Qaeda.

Abdul Aziz Al Masri is another senior Egyptian Al Qaeda member, who was also a close aide to Zawahiri. He had also been tipped as a candidate for top leadership.

Other candidates for the top seat could be Khalid Batarfi, head of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the most internationalized branch of Al Qaeda); Abu Ubaydah Al Annabi, a veteran Algerian radical who is the head of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); or Ahmed Diriye, head of Somalia’s Al Shabaab movement. The last two are unlikely as AQIM is still considered a relatively new branch, but if Diriye – or any leader of the other affiliated branches – is chosen as the new Emir, it would mean that Al Qaeda Core (AQC) in Afghanistan-Pakistan is weak, as it is incapable of providing new commanders for the organization.

The emir of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), Usama Mahmood, is also a potential candidate, though he would have to supersede other senior members. With the announcement of the new leader, there is a possibility that Al Qaeda could confirm the death of Bin Laden’s son and heir Hamza Bin Laden, who was reportedly killed in Afghanistan in 2019 by the US but was never eulogized by the organization.

Based in Afghanistan, AQIS is certainly the affiliate most impacted by the death of Zawahiri. According to local press reports, in an exchange of letters between AQIS emir Usama Mahmood and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leadership in 2020, AQIS revealed its full support for the Afghan Taliban, while asking TTP to lay down its weapons against Pakistan and not to damage relations between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani government.

In the letter, AQIS disclosed its strategy of avoiding conflict with a Muslim government, adding that it was preferable to attack the West and its allies in Muslim countries, such as Yemen and Mali.  For this, AQIS suggested using Afghanistan as a platform for attacks inside Indian Kashmir, and Bangladesh. On the other hand, TTP offered AQIS a merger to avoid its disintegration, as TTP claimed AQIS was being perceived as weak.

The death of Zawahiri and the appointment of a new leader will impact both AQC and AQIS in terms of their freedom of operation in Afghanistan, and also their collaboration with the new Taliban government that might derail AQIS plans for opening a jihad front in Indian Kashmir.

For AQIS, it will become increasingly difficult to operate both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, given the priorities of the current Afghan government (internal stability and international recognition) and the hostility of the TTP to any AQIS intervention.

Since 2020, and particularly this year, AQC and Zawahiri seemingly supported the idea of opening a jihad front in India, with Zawahiri frequently capitalizing on communal violence in the country in his videos and speeches.

For his part, if Adel is appointed to the position of emir, he could exercise his knowledge as a military strategist to revamp Al Qaeda operations in specific areas, while maintaining his typically pragmatic approach. One of these areas could be the Syrian theater, where Al Qaeda is extremely weak currently. When Jabhat Al Nusra was officially moving away from Al Qaeda to become an independent entity, Adel allegedly tried to exert his influence over the jihadist coalition to keep it tied to Al Qaeda.

Having served as a military commander and top strategist in East Africa and Somalia, the Gulf, and Afghanistan, and due to his more balanced approach to operations, Adel was also close to Bin Laden and Zawahiri (though they had their differences). This implies that Adel could provide continuity.

Moreover, his potential selection to the general leadership could boost his project of injecting new life into Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Hurras Al Din (HaD), by negotiating an alliance with the remaining Salafi-jihadist factions around Idlib.

Finally, his alleged good relationship with late Jordanian Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) leader Abu Musab Al Zarqawi (who was killed by the US in 2006) during their Afghanistan days, and the fact that he never issued any statement against Daesh, could also provide him with the opportunity to attract the sympathy of dissatisfied Daesh members, provided that Al Qaeda can regain strength under his command.

Despite the alleged good relationship, competition with Daesh will also be impacted by Zawahiri’s death. The two groups are vying for supremacy, and two major battlefronts are ‘Khorasan’ (Afghanistan and Pakistan) and Africa, particularly the Sahel region, Nigeria and Somalia.

The new leader of Al Qaeda might assume a proactive posture toward Daesh activities in both regions, as Daesh Khorasan Province (Daesh KP) challenges the major ally of Al Qaeda – the Taliban – and Daesh West Africa (Daesh WAP) and Daesh Sahel Province compete with Ansaru and Jamaat Al Nusrat Al Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM).

In Afghanistan, Al Qaeda enjoys limited freedom. During the past few years, AQC lost top members in Afghanistan, such as Abu Muhsin Al Masri, and previously in 2014, when Daesh initially spread into Khorasan, several prominent Al Qaeda figures switched sides and joined ISKP.

Daesh KP is now one of the most successful affiliates of Daesh and has enacted a long-term strategy to derail the Taliban’s efforts to move from an insurgency to a proper government. This strategy is very likely to prolong the conflict between the Taliban and Daesh KP, and it will also drag Al Qaeda into the confrontation, providing the Taliban with help and potentially strengthening the alliance between the new government in Kabul and Al Qaeda.

As Al Qaeda and Daesh battle for supremacy in the Salafi-jihadist global movement, Khorasan – and Afghanistan specifically – will play a symbolic and strategic role, providing many potential recruits for both organizations.

However, under present circumstances AQIS and AQC would find it difficult to openly operate in Afghanistan. Hence, the clash with Daesh Khorasan could provide an opportunity for Al Qaeda to share a common enemy with the Taliban, who might allow more operational freedom to Al Qaeda in return.

In all likelihood, whoever becomes the next Al Qaeda leader will have to come to a pragmatic agreement with the Taliban leadership: Accept a limited advisory role in exchange for protection and the possibility to consolidate the organization.  

In Nigeria, Al Qaeda is now allegedly stronger than it was. Despite losing the link to its only affiliate – Boko Haram – in 2014-15 in favor of Daesh WAP in early 2020, the group Ansaru – an Al Qaeda affiliate in Nigeria closely linked with AQIM – carried out its first operation since 2013. 

Ansaru today is active both militarily and in the propaganda arena, with magazines being published by Al Qaeda media channels. It is also competing with Daesh WAP over Boko Haram remnants and factions in Nigeria.

As Daesh can still claim superiority in Nigeria, the new Al Qaeda leader might decide to devolve more powers and resources to Ansaru. Moreover, as JNIM (‘Group for Support of Islam and Muslims’, a coalition of AQIM-linked organizations founded in 2017), is expanding its area of operations outside Mali, a possible decision by the new leader could strengthen the links between Ansaru and JNIM, particularly if the new leader has good strategy skills.

This might become necessary for Al Qaeda as its strong affiliate JNIM is actively fighting the new Daesh Sahel Province in Burkina Faso and Mali, which is also spreading its tentacles into Niger. On July 17, 2022, Daesh Sahel Province claimed 11 members of JNIM had defected by swearing allegiance to the new Daesh leader. The two groups are also competing for public image in the region, as they have both claimed attacks against Russian private military contractor Wagner in Mali.

It is evident that the two groups are trying to counter each other in the Sahel, in sub-Saharan Africa and Central Africa. With Al Qaeda having lost its grip in Syria as well as freedom of movement in Afghanistan, the organization might decide to allocate more resources and efforts to its African branches.

As competition between Al Qaeda and Daesh for supremacy over the global Salafi-jihadist movement is also conducted online, the next Al Qaeda leader in charge might decide to change the approach of the organization towards propaganda. With Zawahiri, an agreement with the Taliban limited the leadership’s online public presence – thus avoiding issues for the Taliban by concealing Al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan. Moreover, Zawahiri’s public appearance featured mainly traditional religious and rhetorical tirades, starkly contrasting with the more dynamic propaganda by Daesh. The new Al Qaeda leader might have to adopt a proactive media strategy to counter Daesh, although he will face a difficult decision.

Engaging in media warfare with Daesh might boost Al Qaeda’s public image among supporters, appealing to new recruits and affiliates. However, it will also be extremely risky for the safety of its leaders. Moreover, an additional issue will emerge from the fact that this will go against the Taliban’s policy vis-à-vis Al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda has repeatedly stated in its publications it does not need to carry out an attack similar to 9/11. Additionally, looking at Al Qaeda and its affiliates, the operations that are currently being carried out target the “near enemy”, specifically the governments of Muslim-majority countries and Western targets in those countries.

However, given the perceived weakness of Al Qaeda, the new leader might try to invest in attacks far from its usual operational areas, internationalizing its activities with operations on Western soil. By broadening the scope and horizon of its operations, Al Qaeda will re-assert its strength across the Salafi-jihadist community, and it could be vital in the immediate post-Zawahiri period.

Hence, the group’s new leader might adopt – totally or in part – an AQAP style of international attacks, particularly if Batarfi is appointed.

This latter case seems to be unlikely since Batarfi hardly fits the bill for leadership and his branch is suffering from internal ruptures. However, the internationalized approach that has characterized AQAP in recent years might be appealing for any new Al Qaeda leader, especially if he is from the second generation of commanders such as Batarfi himself.

A leader from the old guard could still be selected, but AQC would still have limited capabilities in its movements in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a result of the priorities of the Taliban government. The new leader would likely follow Zawahiri’s path of the silent and slow rebuilding of Al Qaeda under the shadow of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, strictly kept in check by the Taliban. Al Qaeda branches will continue to operate as before, and there will be no attacks in the West. However, attacks against Western targets or against allies might occur in areas where Al Qaeda branches are present.

Depending on the selected leader, the organization might decide to try to revamp its operations, aiding the Taliban in Afghanistan against Daesh KP; its allies in Africa against Daesh WAP and Daesh Sahel Province; or in Syria by injecting new life into Hurras Al Din. Online warfare will be boosted to counter Daesh dominance, but relations with the Taliban might become progressively tense.

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