Foreign Policy Essay
Zawahiri’s Legacy and the Prospects for an al-Qaeda Revival
Editor’s Note: Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is dead, but al-Qaeda persists. How dangerous is the group today? Colin Clarke of the Soufan Center and Haverford College’s Barak Mendelsohn assess the strengths and weaknesses of al-Qaeda and describe what is necessary for al-Qaeda to launch a comeback.
Twenty-one years after the 9/11 attacks, the state of al-Qaeda still remains a subject of significant controversy and disagreement among experts. Efforts to carry out attacks in the West, even on a scale much more limited than 9/11, produced only meager results. According to Nelly Lahoud’s exploration of the bin Laden documents recovered from his hideout in Abbottabad, the U.S.-led war on terrorism pushed the group into relative dormancy. Yet the group has managed to expand globally, developing branches and entering new regions throughout Africa and South Asia. We have argued previously that there is a major discrepancy between the agendas of al-Qaeda Central and the group’s affiliates, and that al-Qaeda has been “hollowed to its core.” While the obituaries for the group’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are being published this week after he was killed in a drone strike in Kabul on July 31, it would be premature to write an obituary for the organization he leaves behind. Though in its current state al-Qaeda is undoubtedly in a very difficult position, given some of the changes in the global security landscape, it could be revitalized once again and regain prominence.
Throughout the duration of their life cycle, terrorist groups experience myriad ups and downs. Take the Islamic State as an example: Following the U.S. troop surge in 2007 and subsequent fight with the Awakening Councils, its preceding group, the Islamic State of Iraq, appeared to be on the ropes. A few years later, the Islamic State controlled large swaths of territory and millions of people across Iraq and Syria. As conditions change, so do the fates of terrorist organizations. Whether a group is capable of recovering often depends on the agility of its leadership, the resonance of the group’s objectives with its audience, and the leadership’s ability to produce a narrative around which members (and other groups) can coalesce and that draws in new recruits.
As expected, following bin Laden’s death, his longtime deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri was elevated to al-Qaeda’s leader. Lacking his predecessor’s charisma and carrying with him a record of petty fighting with peers, subordinates, and colleagues outside the group, Zawahiri was not a transformational leader. Though he was an effective manager, beyond that, his resume was thin: He failed to generate new ideas and was thoroughly unable to inspire the next generation of al-Qaeda recruits and operatives. Hardly admired among the jihadist rank-and-file because he lacked combat credentials and was suspected of cracking under interrogation, Zawahiri’s legitimacy relied to a large extent on the fact that bin Laden anointed him as successor years before he was killed. Zawahiri appears to have understood his constraints, and repeatedly reminded followers of his close connection with the mythic bin Laden. In many ways, Zawahiri attempted to build on his predecessor’s work. He completed a code of conduct for members of the group and its branches, initiated by bin Laden a few years earlier. More importantly, while he recognized an expanded set of conditions under which members of the al-Qaeda network might fight local regimes (“the near enemy”), he never explicitly moved away from bin Laden’s vision of attacking “the far enemy,” even when strategic circumstances indicated that bin Laden’s focus on the United States was misplaced.
Zawahiri had some significant successes. He managed to keep the organization alive despite the loss of bin Laden and many other senior operatives to an aggressive U.S.-led drone campaign, and the rise of the Islamic State as a ferocious competitor that encouraged defections from al-Qaeda and sought to fracture the organization. Though he failed to restrain the Islamic State or to prevent Jabhat al-Nusra from declaring its independence from al-Qaeda, Zawahiri did succeed in keeping al-Qaeda’s branches in Somalia and Yemen as part of the network, even when the loss of their leaders opened a way for the branches to defect to the Islamic State.
While Zawahiri’s efforts helped to preserve the organization, al-Qaeda failed to articulate a fresh vision that would better reflect the new strategic circumstances. Whereas al-Qaeda produced numerous discussions of its future objectives during its first decade after 9/11, the demise of bin Laden and other prominent figures resulted in a relative dearth of statements and documents dealing with al-Qaeda’s strategy in the decade since. Zawahiri continued to release statements, but they often failed to engage with world events in a timely manner or chart a realistic path ahead for al-Qaeda, pushing al-Qaeda toward irrelevance. For example, while the international community was focused on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Zawahiri released a statement dealing with the controversy over Indian Muslim women’s right to wear the hijab. Following the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan last August, Zawahiri remained in hiding, not making even one public appearance, let alone having a public meeting with Taliban officials, which attests to al-Qaeda’s weak position.
But al-Qaeda has several factors still working for it. First, it maintains a vast network of affiliates. Though currently each branch focuses on its own local agenda, they represent an important resource ready for mobilization if al-Qaeda’s central leadership can find a way to link itself more strongly with the branches, in terms of both messaging and operational planning. Strengthening these relationships, though, will also require navigating the risks these affiliates pose to the organization as a whole; the more al-Qaeda Central is associated with the branches, the greater the reputational costs it pays when they fail, and the more internal disputes can undermine organizational cohesion, among other concerns. Second, the events of the past decade produced a different map for jihadi operations. Attacks have surged in previously neglected regions, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, while jihadi capabilities have declined in the Middle East, particularly in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the West’s appetite for military interventions has diminished considerably. Third, in the marketplace for jihadi ideas, al-Qaeda has a market share. There is an audience for its transnational view of one Muslim umma, extending across state borders and stretching from “al-Andalus” (Spain) to Indonesia. The success of the Islamic State showed that there is also a constituency for the restoration of the caliphate, even if al-Qaeda’s timeline is far longer than that pursued by the Islamic State.
Though al-Qaeda is in a weak position, these factors should make its comeback entirely possible, and the new change in leadership could reverse its fortune. Zawahiri proved himself capable of preserving the status quo, but al-Qaeda faced serious difficulties reforming as long as he was at the helm. Even Saif al-Adel, whom most observers see as Zawahiri’s likely successor, is unlikely to be the solution to al-Qaeda’s problems. He represents the old guard, and suspicions that he might be under the thumb of the Iranians, since he is believed to be under house arrest in Iran, are likely to upend his leadership. A recent United Nations Monitoring Team report suggested that, after Saif al-Adel, al-Qaeda’s line of succession is Abdal-Rahman al-Maghrebi, Yazid Mebrak (of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), and Ahmed Diriye (al-Shabaab). None of these seems like a particularly revolutionary change; a greater threat would be the rise of an as-yet-unknown figure who is capable of reawakening the group. A younger leader, better able to communicate with the group’s young members and appeal to potential recruits, could shake the organization, perhaps the way Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi did the Islamic State of Iraq. In the absence of sufficient public information about al-Qaeda’s rising leadership, it is hard to point to any particular personality. Bin Laden’s son Hamza could have potentially played this role, but he was killed several years ago by U.S. forces, although specific details remain sketchy.
A new and charismatic leader would be necessary but insufficient to revive the organization. Al-Qaeda also desperately needs strategic rethinking. Seeing the United States as the center of the umma’s problems was a counterproductive view when bin Laden raised it during the 1990s, when the United States was at the peak of its power. These days, the prioritization of the United States in al-Qaeda’s worldview is completely detached from reality and, in fact, absent from the activities of most of al-Qaeda’s branches. If it is going to remain relevant, al-Qaeda must address shifts in the global balance of power, particularly the rise of China. Failing to adjust its thinking and continuing to portray the United States as its primary enemy, while doing practically nothing to save Uighur Muslims being abused in concentration camps in China, seems hypocritical. Even if few ordinary Muslims care about the plight of the Uighurs, al-Qaeda is supposed to be a global vanguard standing up for Muslims anywhere they are being oppressed, not just in countries that are convenient to harangue. To be effective, Zawahiri’s successor will have to articulate a strategy that accounts for these shifts in the global balance of power, and how this affects the relationship between al-Qaeda’s global agenda and its branches’ local focus.
Importantly, al-Zawahiri’s heir will face the challenge of attracting new recruits and growing the organization. During the 1990s, al-Qaeda benefited greatly from its ability to dispense cash and train allies. However, after more than 20 years of turmoil in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, al-Qaeda is not in a position to offer meaningful and recurring financial support to allies. For al-Qaeda to recover and put itself in a position of power once again, its new leadership will need to identify a way to make the al-Qaeda brand unique and attractive. This means it must re-create comparative advantages that would make membership in the al-Qaeda network, or cooperation with it, enticing.
If Zawahiri’s successor is similarly uninspiring and a relative unknown (or a member of the irrelevant old guard), it could bury the group permanently. However, the rise of a new leader—younger, charismatic, inspiring, and able to articulate a new strategy for al-Qaeda—could lead to its revival. Zawahiri’s dull style and ossified vision for the group made him, in many ways, a convenient enemy for the United States. Now that he’s gone, there’s no promise that his successor will continue his legacy of perpetuating al-Qaeda’s stagnation.