Abstract: The killing of al-Qa`ida’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a U.S. drone strike in Kabul is a critical event that has implications for al-Qa`ida, the global jihadi movement, the Taliban, and U.S. and global counterterrorism efforts. For al-Qa`ida, al-Zawahiri’s death is a major inflection point, as much is riding on who al-Qa`ida picks to replace al-Zawahiri and how the group handles the transition to a new leader. This article examines the principal challenges and tradeoffs that al-Qa`ida faces as it works to select its next leader, and key implications of al-Zawahiri’s death for the global jihadi movement as well as U.S. counterterrorism. There are three primary leader candidate pools that analysts have put forward to replace al-Zawahiri: several senior al-Qa`ida figures who are believed to be in Iran, including Saif al-`Adl; leaders of al-Qa`ida’s regionally aligned groups; and younger or less well known al-Qa`ida members resident in Afghanistan and Pakistan. All present unique challenges for the group, have easily identifiable tradeoffs, and carry different types of risk. The decision that al-Qa`ida makes could end up strengthening the group and its status as a global brand. It could also, like someone pulling a loose thread, facilitate a greater unraveling of al-Qa`ida and its network of formally aligned regional affiliate partners.

One hour after sunrise of the last day of July this year, the hakim of the ummah (the wise man of the nation), as al-Qa`ida followers liked to call him, or the safih of the ummah (the fool of the nation) as Islamic State supporters liked to call him was killed in a U.S. airstrike.1 For most people who are not so kind or playful with an honorific, Ayman al-Zawahiri—the now deceased leader of al-Qa`ida—was a murderous zealot, an individual who led, and principally shaped, an organization that killed and maimed thousands of innocent civilians around the world.

Al-Zawahiri’s death is incredibly significant for three reasons. First, al-Zawahiri was one of the few remaining legacy, early generational figures of al-Qa`ida who were part of the group on 9/11 (or earlier) and who are still alive and/or active with the movement. A few other legacy figures who were members of that much earlier version of al-Qa`ida still remain, but that list gets shorter and shorter every year, and soon that legacy cohort will likely be gone and the first generational chapter of al-Qa`ida will formally close. Al-Zawahiri’s death makes that coming reality starker. Second, the al-Zawahiri strike is an important and symbolic win for the United States, and those looking for justice. It took the United States almost 21 years after 9/11 to find and kill al-Zawahiri, and despite numerous ups and downs in the search, it eventually accomplished that goal. Third, the loss of al-Zawahiri represents a major inflection point for al-Qa`ida as a global movement and brand, as the group has much riding on who they nominate to succeed him and what the central element of al-Qa`ida does next. How al-Qa`ida handles the transition could strengthen the group. It could also be a transition that, like a loose thread, facilitates a greater unraveling.

Initial reporting and accounts have helped to paint a picture of what happened in Kabul. But al-Qa`ida has yet to release a statement acknowledging the strike, and there is still a lot unknown about the circumstances surrounding al-Zawahiri’s death. Questions abound. For example, out of all the potential places where the Taliban could hide al-Zawahiri and his family in Afghanistan, why put him in Kabul, a congested urban area where there are a lot of people watching and where the United States had a lot of networks and influence? That seems a risky move for a man who had a $25 million bounty on his head. There is also the question of how al-Zawahiri got to his Kabul compound in the first place, and where he was prior. Who helped him? (Initial reports suggest that Sirajuddin Haqqani and other Haqqani figures played a key role.a) Who else within the Taliban knew that he was there? (The Taliban has denied knowing about “Zawahiri’s arrival and stay in Kabul.”b) How did the United States find him? And who else is the Taliban sheltering?

While more will be learned about these questions, and others, in the weeks and months ahead, some details about al-Zawahiri’s presence and death in Kabul are likely to remain murky and shrouded in mystery, at least for the public, for quite some time.

This article is divided into two parts. The first part examines key challenges, tradeoffs, and options that al-Qa`ida faces as it works to select its next leader. The second part outlines several implications of al-Zawahiri’s death for the global jihadi movement. The article then concludes with a short discussion about what al-Zawahiri’s death means for U.S. counterterrorism.

Part 1: Leadership Succession – Key Challenges and Tradeoffs
The death of al-Zawahiri is a critical, and potentially monumental, inflection point for al-Qa`ida as a group and movement. The trade-offs and dilemmas that al-Qa`ida faces in selecting al-Zawahiri’s successor are indicative of some of the principal challenges that have complicated, and continue to complicate, the organization’s standing, ability to inspire, and its operational capabilities and reach.

Legacy Figures and the Iran Question
When it comes to al-Qa`ida’s leadership short list, the name most often mentioned is the Egyptian operative Saif al-`Adl, a senior and seasoned member of al-Qa`ida who is reported to still be in Iran (after he fled there in late 2001 after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan).2 In many ways, al-`Adl is an attractive option: He is a respected and well-connected legacy al-Qa`ida figure who possesses a considerable amount of operational experience and expertise.3 Al-`Adl also offers continuity and three decades worth of institutional memory,4 important attributes that could help al-Qa`ida navigate the moment and position that it finds itself in—as a group that has reduced operational capabilities and is not as attractive to potential recruits as it has been in the past. As part of al-Qa`ida’s ‘old guard,’ al-`Adl could also serve as a bridge between the ‘older’ and ‘newer’ guard of the group, and help the group start a new chapter.

For the past several years, there has been speculation and unconfirmed reports that al-‘Adl has left Iran,c but many still believe that he is still in the country.d And if he remains there, it is highly unlikely that al-Qa`ida will select him to replace al-Zawahiri, as logistics and sharia constraints make such a move very problematic. According to al-Zawahiri himself, it is prohibited to have an emir of a group living in custody as a prisoner or under house arrest where that person cannot exercise their own free will or make their own decisions unencumbered.e Logistical issues compound the problem: If al-`Adl were to be appointed as the next leader of al-Qa`ida and remain in Iran, how would he securely and privately communicate with other al-Qa`ida leaders? There would always be the risk that communications to and from al-`Adl would be compromised with the Iranians able to monitor them. For al-Qa`ida, given its ongoing rivalry with the Islamic State, the optics of al-Qa`ida’s leader being based in Iran and being seen as under the thumb of Tehran are disastrous. Al-Qa`ida knows that. But for its part, Iran also knows that if al-Qa`ida were to appoint al-`Adl and he remained in Iran, the United States and other partners would make hosting him costly.

In addition to creating significant credibility and legitimacy problems for al-Qa`ida, al-Qa`ida appointing an Iran-based operative as its leader also comes with its own share of security challenges. Indeed, it was not that long ago—in 2020—that Abu Muhammad al-Masri, another senior al-Qa`ida figure who had been living in Iran, was gunned down (along with his daughter, the widow of Hamza bin Ladin) in Tehran by Israeli agents.5 Besides killing al-Masri, that operation sent a powerful message to other senior al-Qa`ida figures living in the country: You are not safe.

There is also the question of al-`Adl’s suitability for the role, and whether he would be the ‘right’ person. It is worth highlighting that at one point near the time of his death, Usama bin Ladin did not believe that al-`Adl was the right fit to serve as his deputy.f Apparently, bin Ladin was not so excited at the time to continue to have al-Zawahiri as his deputy either, so he asked the senior Libyan al-Qa`ida operative Atiyah Abd al-Rahman (aka Atiyah and Atiyyatullah) to suggest names of potential candidates for that role.6 In his response letter, Atiyah suggested several individuals, most of whom are currently deceased, but among them was al-`Adl. Bin Ladin did not believe that al-`Adl was the right fit to be his deputy because in bin Ladin’s diplomatic way of putting it: Al-`Adl’s strengths were in the military domain, and not in strategic affairs. “I think that he has his efforts that benefit the jihad and the mujahideen, but in the military work, which is below taking up the position of the general command or even the position of deputy, whether a first or a second deputy,” bin Ladin wrote.7 Among the other names that Atiyah strongly suggested as a deputy to bin Ladin was ‘Abdul-Rahman al-Maghribi, al-Zawahiri’s son-in-law and the head of al-Qa`ida’s media arm, as-Sahab, at the time (see below for more details).8 “Our brother ‘Abdul-Rahman al-Maghribi has a very good mentality, a solid religion, high morals, [and is] secretive and patient. [He has] the right thinking and excellent awareness. He is fit for leadership, by God’s permission,” Atiyah wrote to bin Ladin.9

Another complicating factor is that not much is publicly known about al-`Adl’s more recent activities, how his standing or role within al-Qa`ida has potentially evolved in the past several years, or if he would even want the leadership position if offered. Several sources10—such as intelligence provided to the United Nations Security Council by member states since at least 2018;11 an insider account from 2017 that provides insight into how al-`Adl was playing a key role in and helping to shape al-Qa`ida’s affairs in Syria;12 information shared by U.S. officials;g and the fact that al-`Adl still has a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head (which was increased from $5 million in 2018)13—strongly suggest that al-`Adl is still active and that he remains a key senior al-Qa`ida player. That is the consensus view. But specific public details about his role since 2017, and his views generally, are extremely thin. Furthermore, if al-`Adl is al-Qa`ida’s preferred ‘guy’ and he is still in Iran, it is not known if al-Qa`ida would need to, or be able to, strike a deal with the Islamic Republic that would allow al-`Adl to leave the country. There is also the issue of whether al-`Adl would want to leave his family (who joined him in Iran) or if al-Qa`ida, as part of whatever deal it might make with Iran, would be able to secure protections for al-`Adl’s family, assuming they are still in Iran,with the concern for the terrorist group being that otherwise Iran could continue to ‘hold’ them as a form of leverage over him. It also is not clear if such a deal would be in Iran’s strategic interest.14

Two other al-Qa`ida figures who some believe are also on al-Qa`ida’s leadership short list—‘Abdul-Rahman al-Maghribi,15 a son-in-law to al-Zawahiri (who is mentioned in the letter Atiyah wrote to bin Ladin referenced above and is also viewed by the U.N. Security Council’s ISIL, al-Qa`ida, and Taliban sanctions monitoring team as being one of the top contenders16), and ‘Abdul-Aziz al-Misri17—are also reported to be in Iran.18 And if that is true, al-Qa`ida would face the same challenges anointing them: If those individuals cannot get out of Iran, appointing them is a non-starter.

So, for these three contenders to be in play, al-Qa`ida needs to find a way through its Iran problem, which—given how long those individuals are believed to have spent in Iran—might not be an easy or quick problem to solve. For al-Qa`ida, it is a problem that is also likely to involve some type of tradeoff. And even if al-Qa`ida finds a way to navigate through that challenge, other rival jihadi networks, especially the Islamic State, may leverage the extended time those three al-Qa`ida operatives spent in Iran to question their suitability, motives, and ties to Tehran.

Considerations Related to Geography, Ethnicity, Continuity Versus Change, Messaging, Opportunities, and Risk
Some analysts and entities have suggested that the leaders of regional al-Qa`ida-allied groups based outside the Afghanistan-Pakistan area may be another cohort of potential leadership candidates to replace al-Zawahiri.19 This includes Khalid Batarfi (AQAP),20 Ahmad Diriye (al-Shabaab),21 Abu ‘Ubaydah al-Anabi (AQIM),22 Iyad Ag Ghaly (JNIM),23 Usama Mahmoud (AQIS), and Abu Hmam al-Suri (Hurras al-Din).24

For more than 25 years, the top leadership of al-Qa`ida have been based in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Over that period, the relationships and nature of interactivity between the central al-Qa`ida component led by bin Ladin (and later al-Zawahiri) and regional organizations such as al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and al-Shabaab that have formally aligned themselves with the ‘central’ node have evolved. Local priorities, internal group dynamics, counterterrorism pressure, and the rise, and in some cases fall, in the power and capabilities of the regionally aligned al-Qa`ida components have influenced how those regional partners have interacted with al-Qa`ida’s leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan. These dynamics, coupled with competition from the Islamic State—and very real constraints placed on bin Ladin’s and al-Zawahiri’s ability to communicate, provide timely guidance, and lead—have strategically degraded not just al-Qa`ida ‘core,’ but the power and strength of al-Qa`ida as a global enterprise broadly.

The idea that al-Qa`ida would consider and potentially select a leader of a regional al-Qa`ida-aligned component to assume the helm of al-Qa`ida ‘core’ or ‘central’ needs to be viewed in relation to the primary benefits, opportunities, and risks that such a move entails. There are reasons to be skeptical that central al-Qa`ida will proceed in this way. Al-Qa`ida has a long and rich history in Afghanistan-Pakistan, and its ability to survive there is the result of the relationships and space it carved out for itself across multiple decades. While there is still a lot that is not known about the al-Zawahiri strike and how his location was discovered, al-Qa`ida appointing a leader who is not based in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, or would not be willing to relocate there, entails practical and symbolic risk. Not only would it signal an end of an era, it would also serve as an implicit recognition that the al-Qa`ida organization in Afghanistan-Pakistan is a shadow of its former self, that its leadership bench is not deep enough to appoint an emir resident in that theater, and that al-Qa`ida does not believe its strategic center of gravity, or future, lies in that region.

This observation is not to suggest that al-Qa`ida in Afghanistan-Pakistan is not dangerous, that the group does not pose a threat, or that the group may not pose more of a threat in the future. Indeed, if the international community has learned anything over the last 20-plus years from the counterterrorism wars, it is that al-Qa`ida is resilient, is determined, is playing a long-game, and that writing the group’s Afghanistan-Pakistan element off would be a big mistake. Instead, it is only to highlight how al-Qa`ida appointing a leader of a regionally aligned group would not just be a big strategic shift, it would also carry other implicit messages, many of which do not communicate al-Qa`ida being in a healthy position.

Al-Qa`ida anointing a regional leader also comes with the risk that al-Qa`ida’s global brand may become more consumed with, influenced by, or subsumed by the priorities and needs of that regional affiliate and the local conflict dynamics that shape its activity. Selecting a leader from a regionally affiliated organization may also be a genie that it is hard to put back into the bottle, as it creates precedence—and perhaps the expectation—that the next leader would be selected from that same regional group. This could be problematic for certain ethnic or national factions, such as the Egyptian contingent, within al-Qa`ida.

There is also the issue of whether any of the regionally aligned al-Qa`ida leaders would be a good, or the right, fit to lead a global organization, or if those individuals would even want to assume such a role. If one of the regionally leaders were selected, there is a case to be made that AQAP’s leader, Khalid Batarfi, is the strongest candidate. He is an al-Qa`ida veteran, is a good speaker, and leads the regional component of al-Qa`ida that has had the most success in attempting and shaping international attacks.25 Some might argue, though, that his downside is that when compared to al-Zawahiri or bin Ladin, he may not be knowledgeable enough of shari`a and religious issues. And if Batarfi were selected, it then raises the question of what happens to AQAP as an organization. (One work-around might be for Batarfi to relocate to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and for AQAP to select a new leader.)

For al-Qa`ida, and for Islamic State networks as well, areas of Africa present many opportunities, but the cases of AQIM leader Abu ‘Ubaydah Yusuf al-Anabi (also known as Yazid Mebarek), an Algerian, and JNIM leader Iyad Ag Ghaly are instructive of the downsides some of al-Qa`ida’s regional leaders present. The leader of AQIM might not be the best choice because, as noted by France 24, “analysts believe AQIM has lost sway to newer militant groups in the Sahel, one of the world’s most important arenas of jihadist activity, while Mebarek [al-Anabi] is reported to suffer from old injuries and to lack the charismatic pull of Droukdel,” al-Anabi’s predecessor.26 There are reservations about Ghaly as well. As noted by regional specialist Geoff Porter, Ghaly “is a shifty character. For a while he was an ethno-nationalist fighting for Tuareg independence. Then he was tied to Algerian intelligence services who used him to broker a Tuareg peace treaty, and then he became a jihadi.”27 In other words, he does have not the type of solid, uncontroversial pedigree that would inspire confidence in the future of al-Qa`ida as an enterprise. If al-Qa`ida selected a regional group leader as its next emir, it would also present al-Qa`ida with another puzzle: It would need to convince the leaders of the other regional groups that they should accept that regional leader.

But, when one steps back from it all, the fact that regionally aligned al-Qa`ida leaders are being put forward as options at all reflects three takeaways: 1) that al-Qa`ida core is weak, has a limited bench, and is not in a good position, forcing the group to look elsewhere; 2) that the public counterterrorism community actually knows very little about al-Qa`ida’s roster of potential Afghanistan or Pakistan-based candidates who could replace al-Zawahiri; or 3) that al-Qa`ida is on the verge of making a big strategic shift. While all three of these points could be true, the first two seem the most likely.

Generational Aspects and The Less Well Knowns
This leads to the third main category of contenders to replace al-Zawahiri: the al-Qa`ida members who either already reside in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region or who can relocate there, who are less well known publicly (and perhaps less well known in the intelligence world as well). This could include middle managers or younger members of al-Qa`ida who have proven themselves, are trusted, and who could help al-Qa`ida re-energize and modernize its movement; an ideologue or good orator who could help al-Qa`ida to communicate; a strategist or operator; or someone who brings a mix of these skills.i

One individual who fits this mold is Saudi al-Qa`ida member Awab bin Hasan al-Hasani, reported to be one of the group’s top leaders in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.28 A review of articles al-Hasani has written for al-Qa`ida suggests that he joined al-Qa`ida in Afghanistan sometime during the 2008-2009 period.29 His first known publication was an 11-page biography that eulogized his fellow countryman and friend Fawwaz al-Mas’udi al-‘Utaybi (aka ‘Azzam al-Najdi), who was killed during an attack on a U.S. base in Khost on June 1, 2012.30 That specific attack was later depicted in a video produced by the Haqqani network’s media outlet, Manba al-Jihad, which may be an interesting data point given initial reporting senior Haqqani figures provided support to al-Zawahiri in Kabul.31 It is noteworthy that in October 2018, articles written by al-Hasani started to include the title ‘sheikh,’32 suggesting that his status within al-Qa`ida had been elevated. Approximately three weeks ago, on July 16, 2022,33 al-Qa`ida released al-Hasani’s most recent article via as-Sahab, which suggests that al-Hasani is still alive.

It is also possible that the next leader of al-Qa`ida could be someone who fits into the mold of Hamza bin Ladin—one of bin Ladin’s sons (believed to be dead)—who is the son or close relative of a legacy and influential al-Qa`ida figure. Such a person could help provide historical continuity, name recognition, and serve as a generational bridge between the legacy generation of al-Qa`ida and the new, younger one.

The primary risk and downside of al-Qa`ida selecting a talented younger member or middle manager is experience. This pathway could prove challenging for the group as most young candidates would likely lack sufficient sharia and religious knowledge to become the leader of al-Qa`ida.

Each of these options—legacy choices, regional leaders, and the less-well knowns—all involve tradeoffs and dilemmas for al-Qa`ida. They all also reflect how little is known about the current internal workings of al-Qa`ida, what its preferences and priorities are, and the vision it has, or does not have, to evolve as a global brand and operational enterprise.

Armed masked men stand guard as Usama bin Ladin (center) and Ayman al-Zawahiri (left)
address a news conference on May 26, 1998, in Afghanistan. (Getty Images)

Part 2: Implications for the Global Jihadi Movement
The death of al-Zawahiri has implications for the future of the global jihadi movement and its various components, as it is not just al-Qa`ida that has suffered a big loss this year, but the Islamic State as well. This past winter, in February 2022, U.S. forces killed the leader of the Islamic State Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi (also known as Hajji Abdullah) during a raid in Syria.34 Then, one month ago in July, the leader of the Islamic State in Syria, Maher al-Agal, who was one of the group’s top five leaders35 and “was responsible for developing ISIS networks outside of Iraq and Syria,” was killed by a U.S. drone.36 These two big operations followed the killing of the Islamic State’s previous leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, during another U.S. operation in Syria in October 2019.

Since 2013, there has been a considerable amount of animosity, competition, and in some locales open violence between members and supporters of the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida. The two groups and their broader networks embrace different schools of thought about process, methods, priorities, and constraints. Al-Zawahiri represented and served as a figurehead that embodied al-Qa`ida’s school of thought and—at least among the world of jihadis—a more constrained style, what some might consider the old school approach, which was popular among jihadis for a considerable period. The Islamic State, however, as anyone who has watched one of the group’s gruesome and theatrical execution videos or paid attention to its actions and rhetoric, embraces approaches that are bolder and violence that is less restrained, a ‘newer’ way that also prioritizes holding and governing physical territory. The two groups have been engaged in a verbal tit-for-tat for the past several years, and al-Zawahiri was at the center of the disagreement between the two networks. The Islamic State hated him.

Given the death of al-Zawahiri and the recent death of Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before him, both groups are navigating important organizational inflection points. The moment, and the circumstances of it, raises the possibility that the global jihadi movement’s two primary camps—those who support al-Qa`ida and those who support the Islamic State—may soften their antagonism toward one another and potentially find pockets of common ground. Full reconciliation is not likely,37 at least not for the foreseeable future, but in the months ahead, there could be a shift in how the two groups publicly and privately interact with potential for softer or less public forms of cooperation.

An alternative scenario is that the Islamic State seizes upon al-Qa`ida’s transition and takes advantage of the moment not to repair relations and find common ground, but to hit the gas in its efforts to subsume the group and make it, at least in its eyes, even more irrelevant.

Three early signs to watch out for are how the Islamic State treats al-Zawahiri’s death (it has yet to formally acknowledge it), what type of tone al-Qa`ida takes toward the Islamic State in upcoming statements (if it even mentions the organization at all), and how al-Qa`ida’s new leader engages with and discusses the Islamic State.

Over the past 21 years, the United States’ war against al-Qa`ida has been filled with high and low points, and strategic errors and strategic successes. From an operational perspective, the strike against al-Zawahiri illustrated just how much U.S. counterterrorism has evolved, as not only did the United States eventually find al-Zawahiri but it was able to kill him, and according to the U.S. government only him,38 in a drone strike while he was located on his balcony in Kabul, a dense urban area. Instead of flattening the building, an approach that the United States might have taken a decade earlier, the United States fired two missiles at one part of the structure, as planners wanted to limit civilian casualties (according to the White House, members of al-Zawahiri’s family were in another part of building during the time of the strike) and leave the building intact.39 Post-strike photos of al-Zawahiri’s house that have been published online are remarkable for the little damage they show.40 It was a precise hit.

The fact that the strike was conducted ‘over the horizon,’ a year after the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan—with the reduction in sensors and local access that physically ‘being there’ entails, which are factors that can help make operations ‘easier’—is also a noteworthy and significant accomplishment.

The strike also demonstrated just how persistent and dogged the U.S. counterterrorism campaign against al-Qa`ida (and more recently, the Islamic State) has been, and how—when viewed in aggregate across time—effective it has been. Nearly 21 years after the 9/11 attacks, the United States killed al-Zawahiri, the successor to bin Ladin and one of the few remaining legacy al-Qa`ida figures who had not been killed or captured (or left the group). Over the past two decades, the United States and its counterterrorism partners have relentlessly and systematically gutted al-Qa`ida core’s senior leadership and roster of experienced middle managers. The tradeoffs al-Qa`ida faces in selecting its next leader are reflective of what the continuous erosion of al-Qa`ida’s bench has achieved.

Even though some of al-Qa`ida’s regionally affiliated partners are still quite capable, a flashback to a little more than a decade ago is instructive in just how far al-Qa`ida’s overarching star, influence, and capabilities have fallen. In early 2011, al-Qa`ida was busy: It had multiple known voices—ideologues/orators, such as Abu Yahya al-Libi, Anwar al-Awlaki, and the American Adam Gadahn, who helped to sell al-Qa`ida’s worldview and were attractive to different audiences; experienced operators like Atiyah and Yunis al-Mauritani who were either helping to lead special initiatives or plan attacks; and legacy institutional leaders like bin Ladin and al-Zawahiri who were working to guide and develop al-Qa`ida’s global movement and brand. Except for al-Mauritani (who was arrested in Pakistan in 2011 and later transferred to and sentenced in Mauritania),41 all those individuals are dead.

Nevertheless, in adversity there is opportunity for al-Qa`ida. Over the past several years, al-Qa`ida central’s main and nearly exclusive voice to the world had been al-Zawahiri, whose oratory style and content was usually about as exciting and fresh as watching paint dry. Compared to the Islamic State’s media, al-Qa`ida core’s releases are old and boring. The death of al-Zawahiri provides al-Qa`ida with an opportunity to make changes and reset.

For al-Qa`ida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the opportunity to reset and rebuild is highly dependent on local favor and the environment in which the group finds itself. The discovery of al-Zawahiri in Kabul is incredibly troubling in this regard, as it indicates that at least some powerful elements within the Taliban provided sanctuary and support to the al-Qa`ida leader (it has been reported that senior Haqqani network figures, including a top aide to Sirajuddin Haqqani, provided assistance to Zawahiri).42 But there is still a lot that is not known about the strike and the conditions that led to it, as at this point it is still plausible that a component or faction of the Taliban sold al-Zawahiri out. And if that happened, al-Qa`ida could be in trouble and its future trajectory in the region more complicated. One key indicator to watch out for is what type of nod al-Qa`ida makes to the Taliban when it announces its next leader (or in follow-on statements), and specifically whether al-Qa`ida’s new emir pledges bay`a to Hibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban leader.j

The long war against al-Qa`ida and its regional partners is not over, but the death of al-Zawahiri marks the near end of a generational era for al-Qa`ida. It also marks the closing of a chapter of U.S. counterterrorism activity, and the transition to a newish era of internationally oriented American CT—one that is less and less about 9/11 with each passing day and more about curtailing the external power projection capabilities of key networks, ensuring regional stability, limiting the capabilities and influence of regional outfits, and preventing and seeking justice for other acts of violence. This newish chapter in U.S. CT is also more prioritized and an economy of scale mission, as some time ago U.S. strategic defense priorities rightly shifted to bigger and more concerning geostrategic challenges such as China.

Even though the duration of America’s campaign to pursue justice and hold al-Qa`ida accountable for 9/11 and its early attacks was much longer, costlier, and at times much messier, than many had anticipated or hoped, the United States’ campaign against al-Qa`ida has honored and lived up to the rallying cry motto that emerged after 9/11: We will never forget.

For many Americans, 9/11 is a distant or less familiar, or even less personal, memory; nevertheless, the concept of ‘never forgetting’ is still an important principle to help guide the future direction of U.S. CT. This is because even though today’s terrorism threat environment is different, one of the key lessons learned over the past 21 years is that groups like al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State are resilient, persistent, and committed to their cause. And even though the strategic nature of the threat posed by al-Qa`ida has been considerably degraded, and the operational capabilities of the movement’s Afghanistan-Pakistan component have been reduced, it is too early to write al-Qa`ida core off. U.S. defense priorities may have shifted, but that does not mean that al-Qa`ida cares less about the United States. The group’s ideology and ideals live on, and the group’s Afghanistan and Pakistan element will continue its behind-the-scenes work to reconstitute or adapt in ways it believes are necessary. It is also possible that al-Qa`ida’s next leader could end up placing more emphasis on operations and rebuilding the group’s external, transnational attack capabilities. In prior issues of this publication, experienced and senior practitioners have argued the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan could help to shorten the time period needed for al-Qa`ida to rebuild its external operations capabilities. For example, last September, Michael Morell, former acting director of the CIA, believed that “the reconstruction of al-Qa`ida’s homeland attack capability will happen quickly, in less than a year, if the U.S. does not collect the intelligence and take the military action to prevent it.”43 As a result, the United States needs to closely monitor how al-Qa`ida’s Afghanistan-Pakistan region element evolves operationally and strategically, continue its campaign of pressure, and engage in targeted, disruptive actions to undercut and disrupt al-Qa`ida core’s ability to rebound.

As the U.S. counterterrorism community looks and charts its path forward, it is also important to remain humble and to recognize the limits of what over-the-horizon strikes and other counterterrorism actions can achieve. The al-Zawahiri strike was extraordinarily successful, but as others have already pointed out,44 there is a danger that the United States may overread the success, as the primary benefits of leadership decapitation strikes are that they are disruptive and help to buy space and time.     CTC

Don Rassler is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Sciences and Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at the U.S. Military Academy. He is also a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Joint Special Operations University (JSOU). His research interests are focused on how terrorist groups innovate and use technology; counterterrorism performance; and understanding the changing dynamics of militancy in Asia. Twitter: @DonRassler

Muhammad al-`Ubaydi is a research associate at the Madison Policy Forum.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect those of the Combating Terrorism Center, United States Military Academy, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.

© 2022 Don Rassler, Muhammad al-`Ubaydi

Substantive Notes

[a] The Associated Press reported that “the house Al-Zawahri was in when he was killed was owned by a top aide to senior Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, according to a senior intelligence official.” In remarks released by the White House, a senior administration official stated that “senior Haqqani Taliban figures were aware of Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul.” See Matthew Lee, Nomaan Merchant, and Aamer Madhani, “Biden: Killing of al-Qaida leader is long-sought ‘justice,’” Associated Press, August 2, 2022, and “Background Press Call by a Senior Administration Official on a U.S. Counterterrorism Operation,” White House, August 1, 2022.

[b] On August 4, 2022, the Taliban issued a statement saying they were not aware of al-Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul and were investigating the incident. See Pamela Constable, “The Taliban denies knowing of al-Qaeda presence after Zawahiri killed in Kabul,” Washington Post, August 4, 2022.

[c] For example, one recent unconfirmed report claimed that “there is information indicating that Sayf al-’Adl left Iran and went to Afghanistan as soon as the death of Ayman al-Zawahiri was announced.” “Khalifat al-Zawahiri fi al-Qa’idah…Misri Ya’ish fi Iran wa-Matlub Lada America,” Alghad.tv, August 2, 2022. In November 2020, Al Hurra published an article that claimed that after spending time in Iran after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, “there are strong indications that al-’Adl then moved to Syria, but there is no evidence to determine his current location.” “‘Wazafathum li-Khidmat Ajindatuha al-Siyasiyyah’… Kibar Qadat al-Qa’idah Marru min Iran,” Al Hurra, November 14, 2020. In May 2011, CNN reported that “intelligence analysts have long thought that al-Adl went to Iran after the 9/11 attacks, but some sources think he may have returned last year to the Afghan-Pakistan border as part of a deal to free a kidnapped Iranian diplomat in Pakistan.” Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, “Egyptian comrades remember reported leader of al-Qaeda,” CNN, May 20, 2011. See also Assaf Moghadam, “Marriage of Convenience: The Evolution of Iran and al-Qa`ida’s Tactical Cooperation,” CTC Sentinel 10:4 (2017).

[d] In a report released in July 2021, the U.N. monitoring team responsible for briefing the Security Council on the global jihadi threat stated that, according to U.N. member states, al-Zawahiri’s most probable successor would be the Egyptian al-Qa`ida veteran operative Saif al-`Adl and that al-`Adl was based in Iran. In an interview in this issue of CTC Sentinel, the outgoing coordinator of the U.N. monitoring team, Edmund Fitton-Brown, stated, “Saif al-`Adl is still believed to be the likely successor, and he is believed to be in Iran.” “Twenty-eighth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities,” United Nations Security Council, July 21, 2021, p. 5; Paul Cruickshank and Madeline Field, “A View from the CT Foxhole: Edmund Fitton-Brown, Outgoing Coordinator, ISIL (Daesh)/Al-Qaida/Taliban Monitoring Team, United Nations,” CTC Sentinel 15:8 (2022).

[e] Al-Zawahiri stated: “The captive is considered to be under duress, and lacking choice and wilayah [the right to lead].” Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Lessons, Examples, and Great Events in the Year 1427,” February 13, 2007.

[f] After bin Ladin’s death in 2011, Noman Benotman suggested that Saif al-`Adl was chosen as the interim chief of al-Qa`ida (prior to the appointment of bin Ladin’s formal successor Ayman al-Zawahiri). As reported by CNN, according “to Benotman, this was not a decision of the formal shura council of al Qaeda, because it is currently impossible to gather them in one place, but was rather the decision of six to eight leaders of al Qaeda in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area. Al-Adel was already one of the top leaders of the group.” To the authors’ knowledge, this specific detail has never been publicly confirmed nor corroborated by other reliable sources, and the authors do not believe it is highly credible. See Peter Bergen, “Egyptian Saif al-Adel now acting leader of al Qaeda, ex militant says,” CNN, May 17, 2011.

[g] For example, in January 2021, The New York Times reported that at “some point before … [Abu Muhammad al-Masri’s] death, the C.I.A. concluded that he and another senior Qaeda leader in Iran, Saif al-Adl, reorganized Al Qaeda’s global management structure and placed a renewed priority on plotting attacks, according to a senior State Department official who briefed reporters after Mr. Pompeo’s speech.” See Lara Jakes, Eric Schmitt, and Julian E. Barnes, “Pompeo Says Iran Is New Base for Al Qaeda, but Offers Little Proof,” New York Times, January 12, 2021. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made similar, overlapping claims in a speech that he gave on the same day The New York Times article was released. See Mike Pompeo, “The Iran-al-Qaida Axis,” Transcript of Speech to National Press Club, January 12, 2021.

[h] It is believed that al-`Adl’s family joined him in Iran. See Ali Soufan, “Al-Qa`ida’s Soon-To-Be Third Emir? A Profile of Saif al-`Adl,” CTC Sentinel 14:12 (2021).

[i] Several sources provide helpful lists of al-Qa`ida members resident in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This includes a list of deputy candidates that Atiyah sent to bin Ladin in a letter dated July 17, 2010; the list of writers for the al-Qa`ida publication One Ummah whose title includes the honorific ‘Sheikh;’ and a September 2021 article published by Asfandyar Mir in CTC Sentinel that provided a helpful list of notable al-Qa`ida members reported to be located in and active in the Afghanistan and Pakistan region. Given the details, it is helpful to quote Mir at length: “In 2019, the United Nations reported the presence of al-Qa`ida Central leaders Ahmad al-Qatari, Sheikh Abdul Rahman, Husam Abdur-Rauf, and Abu Osman. With Abdur-Rauf’s 2020 targeting in Ghazni, part of this information was proven correct. In 2020, according to the United Nations, a special al-Qa`ida Central unit, Jabhat al-Nasr, also operated on Afghan soil under the leadership of an operative named Sheikh Mehmood. In July 2021, Afghan government sources offered even more specific details. They asserted that one of the senior leaders of the organization for Afghanistan is Sheikh Farooq Masri. Other al-Qa`ida Central leaders who remain in the country include Maulvi Farooq, Sheikh Abu Omar Khalid, Shaikh Nasir Gillani (aka Abu Ibrar), Sheikh Abu Yusuf (liaison to Ayman al-Zawahiri), Abdullah Iraqi, Abu Omar Khittab, and Abu Sulaiman Qureshi. Separately, a Pakistani government source told this author that senior Pakistani al-Qa`ida Central leaders, such as Khalid Maqashi, move between Afghanistan and Karachi.” For quote, see Asfandyar Mir, “Twenty Years After 9/11: The Terror Threat from Afghanistan Post the Taliban Takeover,” CTC Sentinel 14:7 (2021). For the letter to bin Ladin, see “Letter to Shaykh Abu Abdallah,” dated 5 Sha’ban 1431 (17 July 2010), Bin Laden’s Bookshelf, Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

[j] As an important note, Ayman al-Zawahiri pledged bay`a to Hibatullah. See “On the Promise we Continue,” As-Sahab Foundation audio statement, May 28, 2016.

[1] “Background Press Call by a Senior Administration Official on a U.S. Counterterrorism Operation,” White House, August 1, 2022.

[2] For more on al-`Adl, see Ali Soufan, “Al-Qa`ida’s Soon-To-Be Third Emir? A Profile of Saif al-`Adl,” CTC Sentinel 14:12 (2021).

[3] For background, see Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Adam Goldman, Eric Schmitt, Farnaz Fassihi, and Ronen Bergman, “Al-Qaida’s No. 2, Accused in U.S. Embassy Attacks, Was Killed in Iran,” New York Times, November 13, 2020. For more on Abu Muhammad al-Masri, see Ali Soufan, “Next in Line to Lead al-Qa`ida: A Profile of Abu Muhammad al-Masri,” CTC Sentinel 12:10 (2019).

[6] “Letter to Shaykh Mahmud,” dated 17 Shawwal 1431 (26 September 2010), Bin Laden’s Bookshelf, Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Letter to Shaykh Abu Abdallah,” dated 5 Sha’ban 1431 (17 July 2010), Bin Laden’s Bookshelf, Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

[9] Ibid.

[10] For a good summary of the key data points, see Soufan, “Al-Qa`ida’s Soon-To-Be Third Emir?”

[11] “Twenty-eighth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities,” United Nations Security Council, July 21, 2021.

[12] Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “The Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham-al-Qaeda Dispute: Primary Texts (III),” Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi’s blog, December 10, 2017.

[13] “Sayf al-Adl,” Rewards for Justice, n.d.

[14] For background on the dynamics of al-Qa`ida and Iran’s relationship, see Assaf Moghadam, “Marriage of Convenience: The Evolution of Iran and al-Qa`ida’s Tactical Cooperation,” CTC Sentinel 10:4 (2017) and Nelly Lahoud, “Al-Qa`ida’s Contested Relationship with Iran: The View from Abbottabad,” New America Foundation, September 2018.

[15] For background, see Paul Cruickshank and Madeline Field, “A View from the CT Foxhole: Edmund Fitton-Brown, Outgoing Coordinator, ISIL (Daesh)/Al-Qaida/Taliban Monitoring Team, United Nations,” CTC Sentinel 15:8 (2022) and “Abd al Rahman al Maghrebi,” FBI, n.d.

[16] Cruickshank and Field.

[17] For background, see “Ali Sayyid Muhamed Mustafa al-Bakri,” Rewards for Justice, n.d.

[18] Cruickshank and Field; “Ali Sayyid Muhamed Mustafa al-Bakri;” “Twenty-eighth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities.”

[19] For an example, see “Thirtieth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2610 (2021) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities,” United Nations Security Council, July 15, 2022.

[20] “Khalid Saeed al-Batarfi,” Rewards for Justice, n.d.

[21] “Abu Ubaidah (Diriye),” Rewards for Justice, n.d.

[22] “Abu Ubaydah Yusuf al-Anabi,” Rewards for Justice, n.d.

[23] “Iyad Ag Ghali,” United Nations Security Council, n.d.

[24] “Faruq al-Suri,” Rewards for Justice, n.d.

[25] For background on AQAP’s external operations, see Matthew Levitt and Aaron Zelin, “Al-Qaeda’s External Operations One Year After the Pensacola Attack,” Policy Watch 3408 (2020) and Elizabeth Kendall, “Twenty Years After 9/11: The Jihadi Threat in the Arabian Peninsula,” CTC Sentinel 14:7 (2021).

[26] “Who could succeed slain Al Qaeda leader al Zawahiri?” France 24, August 3, 2022.

[27] Author (Rassler) correspondence, Geoff Porter, August 2022.

[28] Asfandyar Mir, “Twenty Years After 9/11: The Terror Threat from Afghanistan Post the Taliban Takeover,” CTC Sentinel 14:7 (2021).

[29] This included articles attributed to al-Hasani that were released through as-Sahab.

[30] Awab bin Hasan al-Hasani, “Allah’s Peace Upon You, Oh `Azzam,” As-Sahab Foundation for Media Production, November 30, 2012.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Sheikh Awab bin Hasan al-Hasani, “Love Story between Salman al-Sa`ud and the Pirate Trump,” As-Sahab Foundation for Media Production, October 2018.

[33] Sheikh Awab bin Hasan al-Hasani, “Loyalty and Defending the Sword of God Abu Suleiman Khalid bin al-Walid from the Lies of the Fool of Al-Hurra Channel Ibrahim `Issa,” As-Sahab Foundation for Media Production, July 16, 2022.

[34] “ISIS Leader Killed in U.S. Raid in Syria,” Wilson Center, February 4, 2022.

[35] Jeff Seldin, “‘Top Five’ IS Leader in Syria Killed in US Drone Strike,” Voice of America, July 13, 2022.

[36] Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali, “U.S. Military: ISIS Leader in Syria Killed in Drone Strike,” Reuters, July 12, 2022.

[37] For context on this issue and the perspective being offered here, see Hassan Hassan, “Two Houses Divided: How Conflict in Syria Shaped the Future of Jihadism,” CTC Sentinel 11:9 (2018). See also Tore Hamming, “The Hardline Stream of Global Jihad: Revisiting the Ideological Origin of the Islamic State,” CTC Sentinel 12:1 (2019).

[38] “Background Press Call by a Senior Administration Official on a U.S. Counterterrorism Operation.”

[39] Ibid.

[40] Paul P. Murphy, “Images show Kabul house where al Qaeda chief was killed by US strike,” CNN, August 3, 2022.

[41] “Al Qaeda leader Younis al-Mauritani jailed for 20 years in Mauritania over ‘plan to attack Australia,’” ABC News, April 21, 2015.

[42] Julian E. Barnes and Eric Schmitt, “How the CIA Tracked the Leader of Al Qaeda,” New York Times, August 2, 2022. See also Footnote A.

[43] Paul Cruickshank, Don Rassler, and Kristina Hummel, “Twenty Years After 9/11: Reflections from Michael Morell, Former Acting Director of the CIA,” CTC Sentinel 14:7 (2021). For another more recent view, see Cruickshank and Field.

[44] Colin P. Clarke, “What Zawahiri’s Death Means for al Qaeda’s Future,” Foreign Policy, August 3, 2022.

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