Small Wars Journal

If Ayman al-Zawahiri is really dead, what's next for al Qaeda?

Mon, 01/11/2021 - 8:13pm

If Ayman al-Zawahiri is really dead, what's next for al Qaeda?

By: Ali Ozdogan, Ph.D.

Several experts of terrorism including Daniel Byman and Hassan Hassan recently reported al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s death[1]. The last time he appeared in media was on September 11, when he published a video message about the nineteenth anniversary of the historic attack.  If al-Zawahiri’s death is true, it inevitably arises the question about how his death impacts al-Qaeda.

Al-Zawahiri was born in 1959 in Egypt. He founded the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) organization and led militant activities against the Egyptian government. Al-Zawahiri joined bin-Laden in around 1989 and became a co-founder of al-Qaeda. 

Al-Zawahiri was known as the brain while bin Laden was the charismatic leader of al-Qaeda. In 1998, al-Zawahiri, alongside bin-Laden, issued a fatwa which proposed that every Muslim has a duty to kill the Westerners “to move their [Western] armies out of all the lands of Islam.” His role in al-Qaeda since the inception of the organization made him the natural leader of al-Qaeda after the US Navy Seals killed bin-Laden in 2011.

Lacking bin-Laden’s charismatic leadership, al-Zawahiri has had a different strategy than him. Al-Zawahiri has avoided large scale and sensational attacks to relieve the counterterrorism pressure over the organization. Al-Qaeda under al-Zawahiri’s leadership aim to prepare ground for the future caliphate via ingraining into local communities and gaining legitimacy. For this cause, al-Qaeda has taken advantage of the sectarian conflicts and tarnishing reputation of its rival, Islamic State (IS) organization in the conflict zones of the Muslim countries. Al-Qaeda’s strategy of focusing less on violent and sensational attacks have been criticized as passivism by some jihadi terrorists who left al-Qaeda and joined rival organization IS. 

Al-Qaeda’s leader manages the organization’s three broad groups: central organization, affiliates, and lone wolves.  Al-Qaeda central, with its 400-600 fighters, is covertly active in Afghanistan’s 12 provinces.[2] Notable affiliates include Hurraas ad-Din in Syria, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) -mostly active in Yemen, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) -mostly active in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and neighboring countries, al-Shabaab active in Somalia, as well as several other organizations in Russia, India, Africa, and other countries[3]. The third component of al-Qaeda comprises of the self-radicalized individuals (i.e. lone wolves) who are inspired by al-Qaeda’s propaganda. Lone wolves have strong ideological association with or without organizational ties to al-Qaeda central.

Al-Qaeda after al-Zawahiri

Al-Qaeda’s future strategy depends on al-Zawahiri’s successor who is hard to predict as of now since many high-profile al-Qaeda members were killed recently. Hamza bin-Laden, Usama bin-Laden’s son was killed by a US operation in 2019. Hamza’s father in law, Mohammad al-Masri, who was the likely successor of al-Zarqawi, was assassinated in Iran in August 2020 by Israeli operatives at the behest of the US[4]. Husam Abd’al’Ra’uf (aka Abu Muhsin al-Masri), Abdelmalek Droukdel -the leader of al-Qaeda in Maghrib (AQIM), and Qasim al-Rimi -the commander of al-Qaeda in Arabic Peninsula (AQAP) were killed in 2020. An internet site operated by India’s largest media conglomerate mentioned that Saif al-Adel, al-Qaeda’s chief military strategist, can be the next al-Qaeda leader[5]. Al-Adel fled from Afghanistan to Iran in 2000s when US ramped up operations on al-Qaeda targets. Al-Adel currently resides in either Syria or Iran under the protection of the Iranian Quds Force which is the unconventional warfare and military intelligence branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC). From Iran, al-Adel conducted several terrorist attacks abroad.[6]

The leadership transition has two distinctive implications on al-Qaeda. First, the transition has the potential to create a power vacuum exacerbated by the communication challenges caused by the counter-terrorism pressure over al-Qaeda. The power vacuum and the challenges in open communication between al-Qaeda central and the distant branches has potential to further decentralize al-Qaeda. Second, the new leader may lead the organization to engage in sensational attacks in order to gain legitimacy and strengthen his leadership position.

In order to strengthen his position as al-Qaeda’s next leader, al-Zawahiri’s successor will have to gain the support of sponsor and facilitator states such as Iran and Turkey. These states are important for facilitating the flow of fighters, weapons, and money to the al-Qaeda branches in Syria, Afghanistan, and other parts of the world[7], which in turn will allow al-Qaeda to maintain operational capabilities.

Al-Zawahiri’s successor’s approach to the main rival group, Islamic State, is another area impacting al-Qaeda’s future. Both IS and al-Qaeda have similar ideological roots, and they compete for the same recruitment pool. Yet, both groups have differences in terms of their enemy framing and short-term objectives. These differences are so serious that they get into violent conflicts with each other. Al-Zawahiri’s successor will have to confront dealing with the IS.

Terrorist organizations are dominantly managed by individuals, not institutions. So, al-Qaeda’s new leader will significantly impact the organization’s capabilities. Counterterrorism policies exploiting the power vacuum during the leadership transition and imposing sanctions over the supporter and facilitator states are more likely to have success toward dismantling al-Qaeda, which is why US counterterrorism measures strategized around taking advantage of the weak nature of al-Qaeda amid its transition process has a good chance of success.


[1] Byman, Daniel. The death of Ayman al-Zawahiri and the future of al-Qaida. 2020, Nov 17. Brookings.


[2] Twenty-sixth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Team. 2020, July 23. S/2020/717. United Nations Security Council.


[3] Twenty-sixth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Team. 2020, July 23. S/2020/717. United Nations Security Council.

[4] Goldman, Adam, Eric Schmitt, Farnaz Fassihi, and Ronen Bergman. 2020, November 27. Al Qaeda’s No. 2, Accused in U.S. Embassy Attacks, Was Killed in Iran. New York Times.

[6] United Against Nuclear Iran. 2020, November. Al-Qaeda and Iran: Alliance against the US.


[7] United Against Nuclear Iran. 2020, November. Al-Qaeda and Iran: Alliance against the US.

About the Author(s)

Ali Ozdogan, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at the Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. His research interest includes terrorism, democracy, criminology, and artificial intelligence.



Thu, 09/23/2021 - 8:01am

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