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Ayman al-Zawahiri, who led al-Qaeda after Osama bin Laden’s death in 2011, is dead from a U.S. drone strike on a residential area in Kabul. Zawahiri’s death is the end of an era—he was an early member of al-Qaeda and an active jihadist for decades before that. The al-Qaeda he left behind endured despite an aggressive and devastating U.S. counterterrorism campaign, but it is also weak, with far less operational capacity and political influence than it had around the time of 9/11. A more charismatic and capable leader might revive the organization, but he will face many difficulties in trying to revive the once-dominant jihadist organization, not least of which is a well-institutionalized U.S. and global counterterrorism apparatus.
Zawahiri’s performance as a jihadist elicited mixed reviews: Some experts dubbed him a “mastermind,” and others criticized his leadership skills (my position). Zawahiri did provide strategic direction to al-Qaeda, helping keep it focused on the United States and the West, at least in rhetoric. As Asfandyar Mir argues, Zawahiri was able to keep a divided movement together under trying conditions. Al-Qaeda also has a stronger presence in Africa than it did before 9/11 and otherwise continues to seek new areas for expansion. Finally, Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul is yet another piece of evidence that the Taliban remain tied to al-Qaeda and that Afghanistan should remain a top counterterrorism concern.
Yet Zawahiri’s death may actually be good news for al-Qaeda or, short of a boon to the organization, will likely have little impact given the group’s many existing problems. Zawahiri, in contrast to bin Laden, was pedantic and had little charisma. Under his watch, the core group had not conducted any spectacular terrorist attacks on the United States and Europe for many years despite a continued rhetorical focus on the United States and Europe. Affiliates tied to the organization, such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), did inspire and perhaps orchestrate attacks, such as the military trainee from Saudi Arabia who killed three American sailors at a U.S. naval base in Florida in December 2019, but the core organization has not carried out a successful attack on the United States or Europe since the 2005 bombings in London. This may reflect operational weakness or simply a more pragmatic shift toward areas where its affiliates are most focused, but either way it is good news for the United States.
Most consequentially, Zawahiri lost control of the jihadist movement as a whole. Al-Qaeda seemed to rebound after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, when outrage at the United States and the collapse of government in Iraq led to the emergence of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which quickly grabbed world headlines. Bin Laden and Zawahiri struggled to control Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which later changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq. This problem exploded early in the Syrian civil war, the most important jihadist conflict of the time, when the Islamic State of Iraq rejected Zawahiri’s leadership, changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and for several years became the dominant force of jihadism in Syria, Iraq, and the world. Even the Syrian remnant that stayed loyal to Zawahiri as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham eventually split from al-Qaeda.
Many jihadist groups today, even ones like AQAP that have the name “al-Qaeda” in their title, are locally focused. They want to spread the jihadist cause to Yemen, the Maghreb, and other parts of the world, and they are deeply enmeshed in bitter civil wars in these areas. As such, they pose a danger to regional stability, and governments fighting them deserve assistance, but the risk to the U.S. homeland is far less than when bin Laden directed a more global movement.
The fact that the killing of Zawahiri occurred in Kabul is both good and bad news for the U.S. government. As suspected, it indicates that the Taliban will at least host al-Qaeda. It also indicates that there remains a risk that the Taliban will allow al-Qaeda to reestablish training camps and other infrastructure that made it so dangerous in the decade before 9/11. On the other hand, it shows that an “over-the-horizon” approach to degrading al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, something that evoked skepticism after the U.S. troop withdrawal and the collapse of the pro-U.S. government, is plausible, at least to some degree. Indeed, the precision of the strike is remarkable, apparently killing only Zawahiri and not others in the house, which suggests impressive intelligence collection.
A post-Zawahiri al-Qaeda very much depends on who is the next leader. We don’t know who will consolidate power, though longtime jihadist Saif al-Adel is often mentioned as a candidate. Terrorist groups often rise and fall depending on the quality of leadership, and indeed part of why ISIS was able to gain such support was because Zawahiri was unable to motivate many jihadists, and they cast about for a more exciting leader and new direction. A new leader might re-energize al-Qaeda, but in the near term and perhaps longer, he may struggle to consolidate power and gain the respect of the rank and file.
Al-Qaeda will also benefit from the weakness of ISIS, which fell from the dizzying heights it achieved in 2014–2015. Like al-Qaeda, ISIS persists, both as a model and as an organization, though it is far weaker and less inspiring now that it has lost the caliphate and no longer controls significant territory. ISIS still endures with forces fighting in Syria and supporters around the world, but it is far less capable of acting on its own or inspiring others.
Al-Qaeda affiliates may take this moment to further increase their distance from the core, at least in practice, if not in rhetoric. Much depends on the new leader and his networks, but it is hard for any leader to maintain control of this always-fractious movement, particularly when the communication and visibility necessary to establish a presence greatly increases the risk of being detected by the United States and its allies. It is possible that the next al-Qaeda leader may simply be a figurehead, exercising even less influence than did Zawahiri over the day-to-day activities of local jihadists.
Any new leader might seek to take revenge for Zawahiri and has a strong short-term incentive to support high-profile terrorist attacks on the West as a way of gaining attention, attracting money, inspiring recruits, and proving the new leader’s credentials. Fortunately, as the Zawahiri strike shows, the United States maintains an impressive counterterrorism apparatus, working closely with allied intelligence services around the world as well as striking deep into terrorist havens. Zawahiri, after all, is only the latest of many al-Qaeda and ISIS leaders killed or captured in hideouts in Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. Al-Qaeda’s aspirations remain grand and revolutionary, but its capacity is weak, and the organization risks being marginalized if the new leader cannot energize it.