Al-Qa`ida will soon announce a successor to Usama bin Ladin. It is an open question whether the new leader of al-Qa`ida, likely to be Ayman al-Zawahiri, will be able to command the same influence over the group’s various regional franchises. If Bin Ladin’s replacement is considered a weaker authority figure, it may result in al-Qa`ida’s central leadership—based in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region—having less influence over its various branches, including al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and al-Qa`ida in Iraq (AQI).

During his 23-year reign as the head of al-Qa`ida, Bin Ladin’s authority was never seriously challenged. He was the figure behind the creation of al-Qa`ida in 1988 and was one of the group’s main financiers. Even objections from senior al-Qa`ida leaders over the legality of executing the 9/11 attacks did not prevent Bin Ladin from approving the operation.[1] Moreover, despite the heavy losses inflicted on the group by the United States and its allies in the “war on terrorism,” Bin Ladin managed to become a symbol to many in the Muslim world for one who stood against American hegemony. The failure to capture or kill him for nearly 10 years also afforded him the image of invincibility.

Indeed, not only did Bin Ladin survive the war on terrorism for a decade, but he managed to expand his organization into multiple theaters of conflict. Instead of being largely confined to Afghanistan as the group was before 2001, al-Qa`ida is now able to operate across the Muslim world. Bin Ladin achieved this by allowing al-Qa`ida to become a franchise—ceding some authority over strategy and tactics to regional affiliate groups. This article briefly identifies the weaknesses in al-Qa`ida’s franchise model, and then assesses how Bin Ladin’s death may affect the group’s regional affiliates in the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa and Iraq.

The Franchise Model
Since the 9/11 attacks, al-Qa`ida has employed a franchise model, which has allowed the group operational access to multiple countries, largely through local affiliates. Yet the franchise model is not without its weaknesses. Al-Qa`ida has to manage its franchises carefully to ensure that they pursue the general modus operandi of al-Qa`ida’s central leadership. Bin Ladin’s stature has been critical in ensuring that al-Qa`ida’s affiliates follow the group’s general targeting guidelines and rules of war. Without Bin Ladin at al-Qa`ida’s helm, it is possible that the group’s regional franchises will pay less attention to the directives of al-Qa`ida’s new leader.

The case of AQI is an important example of the challenge Bin Ladin’s successor will face in overseeing the group’s multiple affiliates. Even under Bin Ladin’s leadership, al-Qa`ida was largely unable to control the actions of AQI’s leader, Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi.[2] Al-Zarqawi’s targeting strategy was so expansive that he not only attacked members of the U.S.-led coalition, but also Iraqi Shi`a, members of other Sunni resistance groups, and Sunni tribal leaders who did not agree to his methods or demands.

Al-Qa`ida’s central leadership wanted to give al-Zarqawi deference to conduct the war as he saw best. Yet as al-Zarqawi’s violence escalated with time, al-Qa`ida’s leaders could not allow AQI to slaughter hostages on camera, blow up Shi`a religious sites, assassinate Sunni tribal leaders and anger Iran by killing their co-religionists in Iraq (Iran is holding some key al-Qa`ida leaders in custody). Additionally, al-Zarqawi sought to expand his sphere of influence outside Iraq’s borders, sending suicide bombers to hotels in Amman in 2005—attacks that resulted in many civilian casualties and widespread outrage in Jordan. From al-Qa`ida’s perspective, al-Zarqawi’s actions risked alienating much of the Muslim world, turning al-Qa`ida sympathizers or potential recruits into passive observers or enemies.

Unfortunately for al-Qa`ida’s central leadership, by the time they were able to “tame” al-Zarqawi, the Iraqi jihad was damaged irreparably. Even after al-Zarqawi allowed Iraqis to take the lead in the conflict, it did not change al-Qa`ida’s fortunes in Iraq. Although Bin Ladin and al-Qa`ida ultimately prevailed in restraining al-Zarqawi, it was not an easy task.

The case of AQI shows the challenge faced by al-Qa`ida’s new leader. Al-Qa`ida’s new chief will have to strengthen al-Qa`ida’s grievance narrative and prevent the group’s franchises from over-reaching and turning Muslims away from its message.

Al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula
In line with al-Qa`ida’s franchise model, AQAP has been allowed to pursue its tactics and target set against the Gulf rulers without any public interference from al-Qa`ida’s central leadership. AQAP’s leader, Nasir al-Wihayshi, has launched assassination attempts against Saudi officials, bombing campaigns against local and foreign targets inside Yemen, and even twice attempted to attack the United States itself.[3] Al-Wihayshi may have consulted with al-Qa`ida’s central leadership before launching the Christmas Day attack against a U.S. airliner in 2009, but this is not clear from public statements issued by AQAP as it has not hinted at the need to consult Bin Ladin’s leadership group before launching attacks inside or outside the Gulf.[4]

It is unlikely that al-Wihayshi will challenge the new leader of al-Qa`ida. Al-Wihayshi, however, will expect the new al-Qa`ida amir to continue Bin Ladin’s policy of allowing regional franchises the freedom to operate as they see best, whether in the Arabian Peninsula or in the wider world—including in the United States.

In the wake of Bin Ladin’s death, however, AQAP could take a more prominent role in the overall jihad against the United States. This development is already in progress, evident from AQAP’s attempted attack on a U.S. airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009, as well as its more recent plot to send parcel bombs on cargo planes bound for the United States in October 2010. Moreover, AQAP is also sheltering Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-`Awlaqi, who has contacted a number of Western Muslims inciting them to attack U.S. and European targets. Many analysts already consider AQAP the most serious threat to the United States. From AQAP’s perspective, if it were to launch a revenge attack against U.S. interests for the killing of Bin Ladin, it would secure itself as the preeminent al-Qa`ida affiliate operating today.

Al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb
Unlike AQAP, in the case of AQIM al-Qa`ida’s core leadership has played a more visible role in the group’s activities recently. This role, however, may have come at AQIM’s request. For years, AQIM has been involved in kidnapping Western hostages in the Sahel region to earn ransom payments, or to force some countries to meet its demands (such as freeing AQIM members held by regional governments). The ransom “business” is viewed as being highly profitable for AQIM, and the group has reportedly made millions of dollars.[5] It is not clear if AQIM’s kidnap-for-ransom strategy upset al-Qa`ida’s leaders, who have been under increased funding pressure due to government sanctions and other efforts. It is also unclear if al-Qa`ida’s central leadership wanted to receive a share of AQIM’s profits. Regardless, the head of AQIM, Abdelmalek Droukdel (also known as Abu Mus`ab al-Wadud), announced in December 2010 that if France wanted to free five French hostages in AQIM’s custody, it had to negotiate directly with Usama bin Ladin.[6] The demand marked the first time that AQIM asked the country to which the hostages belong to negotiate with Bin Ladin directly. Bin Ladin subsequently demanded that France withdraw its troops from Afghanistan.[7]

Droukdel may have wanted Bin Ladin to negotiate with the French to show that he follows the orders of al-Qa`ida’s senior leaders. Droukdel’s motivation may have been to secure his role as the leader of AQIM, or to demonstrate that the group does not kidnap hostages for money alone. Droukdel may have been under pressure to justify why he switched his policy to kidnap-for-ransom in the Sahel region in the south, instead of continuing the military jihad against the Algerian government in the north. Yet it is also possible that al-Qa`ida’s central leadership requested AQIM to allow them to play a larger role in North Africa. If this latter scenario is the case, Droukdel would not have been in a position to reject the request of Bin Ladin, the overall amir of al-Qa`ida.

If al-Zawahiri takes command of al-Qa`ida, it could give Droukdel’s AQIM more influence within al-Qa`ida’s central leadership. It was through al-Zawahiri that the former Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) became al-Qa`ida’s franchise in North Africa in January 2007.[8] It is also alleged that al-Zawahiri himself has intervened in the work of AQIM by “setting limits” on where it can operate. For instance, well before the recent North Africa unrest, al-Zawahiri reportedly asked AQIM to refrain from taking action in Libya.[9] Today, however, al-Zawahiri has called publicly for attacks against NATO troops should they be deployed on the ground in Libya—even though NATO forces would be fighting on the side of the rebels against the Libyan regime.

Al-Qa`ida in Iraq
When al-Qa`ida appoints a new leader, it will likely only have a marginal effect on the Iraqi jihad. AQI has been in decline ever since the United States killed its leader, Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi, in 2006. Today, al-Qa`ida’s central leadership is already playing a much smaller role in Iraq. Both AQI and the Islamic State of Iraq are currently squeezed by the Iraqi government. Neither group has any major figures known across the Arab world, which also means that their leaders are unlikely to challenge the authority of the individual who replaces Bin Ladin.

Based on the preceding analysis, it appears that Bin Ladin’s death will have little effect on al-Qa`ida’s regional franchises. AQI is already seriously weakened, and al-Qa`ida’s central leadership seems to have largely accepted their fate in the Iraqi jihad. AQAP is aggressively pursuing its strategy in Yemen, and it has now reached a level of operational effectiveness to target the U.S. homeland. AQAP achieved this success through the work of its leader, Nasir al-Wihayshi, not through Bin Ladin. Regardless of who takes over the mantle of leadership in al-Qa`ida, AQAP will likely continue its current course. As for AQIM, it may take a more prominent role in al-Qa`ida should al-Zawahiri succeed Bin Ladin. More importantly, Libya is within AQIM’s reach, and should that country descend into a long civil war, AQIM may try to deploy fighters and build cells inside Libyan territory. It could also attempt to launch attacks against Western targets in Libya or in the wider region.

The main variable to this outlook is if Ayman al-Zawahiri is captured or killed in the near future. Without both Bin Ladin and al-Zawahiri, al-Qa`ida will struggle to appoint a leader of their caliber. In this scenario, it is possible that one or more of the al-Qa`ida franchises could challenge the authority of the new appointed head of al-Qa`ida, or at least consider themselves an equal-weighted partner. This would become especially true if one of the franchises succeeded in executing a large attack on a similar scale of 9/11, the USS Cole strike, or the East Africa embassy bombings.

Camille Tawil is an author and journalist, writing on al-Qa`ida and jihadist movements worldwide. Educated in Lebanon, he has been a journalist at al-Hayat newspaper since 1991 where he has specialized in covering militant Islamic groups. He is the author of two books: The Armed Islamic Movement in Algeria: From the FIS to the GIA (in Arabic) and Brothers in Arms: The Story of al-Qaeda and the Arab Jihadists, which has recently been published in English by Saqi books.

[1] For details, see the 9/11 Commission’s report regarding the objections made by the head of al-Qa`ida’s religious committee, Abu Hafs al-Mauritani (Mahfouz Ould al-Walid). Noman Benotman, a former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, also alleged that other prominent leaders of al-Qa`ida objected to the attacks. For details, see The 9/11 Commission Report (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004). Also see “The Other Face of Al-Qaeda,” a series of articles published by this author in the London-based newspaper al-Hayat.

[2] Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi was not a member of al-Qa`ida during his presence in Afghanistan, where he lived until the end of 2001. Once in Iraq, it was a “marriage of convenience” that led al-Zarqawi to join al-Qa`ida and pledge allegiance to Bin Ladin in 2004.

[3] A Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, allegedly carried out the failed attack on a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit after being trained at AQAP camps in Yemen.

[4] Based on open source information, there is no evidence that AQAP and al-Qa`ida’s central leadership consulted each other regarding these attacks.

[5] Algerian officials allege that AQIM has made millions of dollars from the kidnap-for-ransom trade in the Sahel region. For details, see “Al-Qaeda Hostages: Spain has Paid the Highest Ransom,” Ennaharonline, September 13, 2010.

[6] For details, see Abdelmalek Droukdel’s audio recording released on December 19, 2010.

[7] “Bin Laden Threatens France,” al-Jazira, January 21, 2011.

[8] It was Ayman al-Zawahiri who announced in a videotape released by al-Qa`ida on September 11, 2006 that “the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat” has joined the al-Qa`ida organization. Also see this author’s interview with the former head of the GSPC’s media committee, Abu Omar Abd al-Birr, describing how the Algerian group contacted al-Zarqawi in Iraq in 2004, a process that eventually led to the merger with al-Qa`ida in 2006, and becoming the North Africa franchise in 2007. This interview is available at

[9] Camille Tawil, “The Other Face of Al-Qaeda,” al-Hayat, October 2010. By limiting the role AQIM can play in Libya, al-Zawahiri was trying to please a faction of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which agreed to merge with al-Qa`ida in 2007. The Libyan jihadists had a negative experience with AQIM’s cadre who were previously part of the Armed Islamic Group, which killed some LIFG fighters who went to Algeria in the 1990s to help in the jihad against the Algerian government.

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