Al-Qaeda’s future may be uncertain – but their threat has not diminished

By Rhys Guerrier

While Ayman al-Zawahiri’s killing raises questions about al-Qaeda’s future, the group and its affiliates still pose a serious threat to many people around the world.

The sudden targeted killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri on 31 July was received with praise and a sense of closure in many Western countries. In his televised address, Joe Biden said that al-Zawahiri “carved a trail of murder and violence against American citizen”.

He added: “Now justice has been delivered and this terrorist leader is no more.”

But his calming tone must not, however, obscure the group’s continuing threat.

Al-Zawahiri had been a part of al-Qaeda since its formation in the late 1980s. He helped plan and co-ordinate many of the organisation’s most notorious and brutal attacks, such as the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000 and most notably 9/11, where nearly 3,000 people died. 

He quickly succeeded Bin Laden as leader after he was killed in a US special forces operation in May 2011. Al-Zawahiri was often criticised for his lack of charisma: he recorded long, rambling videos that did not have his predecessor’s mass appeal, which soon led to defections to the ultra-violent splinter group ISIS. This caused some to dismiss his death as insignificant, but this overlooks al-Zawahiri’s crucial role in maintaining the group’s cohesion during this period. Even though he was partially responsible for ISIS’ formation, he prevented further defections by portraying al-Qaeda and its affiliates as the less violent alternative, prioritising local grievances and building grassroots support, in what was a clear attempt to restore legitimacy among its fighters.

While al-Zawahiri’s choice not to elect a successor may be seen as a chance for the group to change direction, it also presents the senior leadership with the unprecedented situation of having to navigate a fragile succession process. Saif al-Adel, a fellow Egyptian and veteran of the group, is the most likely successor. However, he is reportedly living under house arrest in Iran, which will undoubtedly raise suspicions as to whether he is being manipulated by the Iranian regime. 

A report by the UN ISIL/Daesh Monitoring Team also lists other potential successors, including Abd-al Rahman al-Maghrebi – the head of al-Qaeda’s media wing – Yazid Mebrak – the leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – and Ahmed Diriye – the leader of al-Shabaab. 

Al-Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul, however – in a house reportedly owned by a top aide of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Afghan interior minister – is evidence that Afghanistan will likely become central to al-Qaeda’s future. It confirms the continuing close ties between the three groups despite the terms of the 2020 Doha Agreement that helped the Taliban sweep to power last year. Under the agreement, the US promised to withdraw its remaining troops if the Taliban adhered to a number of strict conditions – which included cutting ties with groups like al-Qaeda.

But a recent UN report states that al-Qaeda has ‘increased freedom of action’ under the Taliban. Based on intelligence provided by member states, it raises significant concerns about the Taliban’s ability to prevent al-Qaeda from launching an international terrorism campaign in the medium to long-term. Both groups have co-operated since Bin Laden offered the first bay’ah (pledge of allegiance) to Mullah Omar in the 1990s, and will likely want to maintain close ties.

Given the threat from the Islamic State Khorasan Province group (IS-K), the Taliban will likely want to maintain their historic ties with al-Qaeda to help resist the IS-K insurgency. IS-K, the regional ISIS affiliate, was set up in 2015 and recruits Afghan and Pakistani jihadists – many of whom defect from the Taliban. In return, the Taliban would assist al-Qaeda by making Afghanistan a haven from which to launch future attacks. 

Zawahiri’s localist policies have also seen Africa emerge as a jihadi front, with affiliated groups like al-Shabab found mainly in the north-east and the Sahel. These groups mainly control rural areas and regions directly affected by conflict. In July, almost 500 al-Shabab fighters crossed into Ethiopia, fighting Ethiopian armed forces along the border, and just one week before al-Zawahiri’s death, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Mali attacked the country’s most important military base. ISIS affiliates have also made significant gains across the continent, which will only lead to further clashes – and more civilians caught in between.

Meanwhile, al-Qaeda also maintains a presence in the Middle East, primarily in parts of Syria and Yemen – which to this day remains the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

While the group’s Indian affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, has failed to find much support among India’s Muslim population – even in light of increasingly aggressive Hindu nationalism – like anywhere else in the world, this must not obfuscate the significant and continuing threat this group poses.

Rhys Guerrier is the former editor of Pi Media at UCL.

Featured Image: Al Jazeera English @ Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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