While the terrorist group has rivals, its ranks are thinner and more geographically dispersed than they were 10 or 20 years ago.
Here’s what we know about who could be the next al-Qaeda leader.
The man considered by many analysts to be Zawahiri’s successor is Saif al-Adel, a former Egyptian commando who is one of the last surviving members of al-Qaeda’s “founding generation” and has spent much of the past two decades in Iran.
Adel was a loyal servant of Osama bin Laden before becoming the interim leader of al-Qaeda in 2011. In the following years, ISIS grew.
Saif al-Adel is his pseudonym, which translates to “Sword of Justice”. This is not the only mystery of this man.
There are only a couple of supposed photographs of him. He is said to have faked his own death when he was 20 years old. His status in Iran was also unclear: sometimes in custody, sometimes under house arrest, sometimes at large.
Ali Soufan, a former FBI special agent and author of Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of Bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State, describes Adel as an ideal insider, a well-connected man in many countries and a shrewd military tactician. . For most of his adult life, he lived and breathed al-Qaeda.
Soufan recently wrote in the Counterterrorism Center’s Sentinel magazine that Adele played a “central role in audacious attacks, from the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia to the US embassy bombings in East Africa and the USS Cole suicide bombing. “
“When he acts, he does it with ruthless efficiency,” Soufan added. “First of all, he is a pragmatist – a man who would know that, despite the hateful need to live under [Shia] state anathema for Sunnis [al Qaeda]his best chance of survival and hence further effectiveness in jihad was to return to Iran.”
Soufan also notes that al-Adel was a mentor to the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose organization later became ISIS.
“Saif, as Emir, will have a rare opportunity to bring back some of the former Islamic State members to [al Qaeda]Sufan suggests.
A report by UN experts released earlier this year claimed that other candidates for the leadership of al-Qaeda were from the organization’s strong African affiliates.
In addition to al-Adel, it mentioned three other possible candidates: Abdal-Rahman al-Maghrebi; Yazid Mebrak, head of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); and Ahmed Dirie, leader of the Shabaab in Somalia.
Maghribi, if that were the case, would have left him in the family as he is Zawahiri’s son-in-law. But he is Moroccan in an organization historically dominated by Saudis and Egyptians.
Last year, the US State Department labeled him a Global Special Purpose Terrorist and called him the “perennial director” of As Sahab, al-Qaeda’s media operation. He is 52 years old.
In documents recovered from bin Laden’s Pakistani hideout, another senior al-Qaeda figure said that Maghrebi “has high morals, knows how to keep secrets, and is patient. His ideology is sound and he is well aware.”
Mebrak, an Algerian, became the leader of AQIM in 2020. He is also known as Abu Ubaida Yusuf al-Anabi.
In appointing him, the State Department said he “had a role to play in the global governance of al-Qaeda,” just like his predecessor as leader of AQIM.
He is a veteran of the jihad in the Sahel, where al-Qaeda and ISIS compete for supremacy.
Another affiliate that has survived despite the best efforts of the United States and the multinational East African forces is Al-Shabaab in Somalia. She was prone to internal divisions and her fortunes fluctuated wildly, but she weathered the challenge from the budding ISIS.
Dirie has been its leader since 2014, which is unlikely for a long time. Shabaab and al-Qaeda have been united for ten years, and Dirie quickly swore allegiance to Zawahiri when he became leader.
For al-Qaeda, appointing an African leader would be a cultural leap. Some former al-Qaeda insiders say senior Egyptian and Saudi figures in the organization often looked down on African affiliates.
Al-Qaeda has always had only two leaders, and the current status of its ruling shura (council), which played a decisive role in Zawahiri’s election, is difficult to determine. When Zawahiri was elected, he had already been nominated by bin Laden as his successor, but it still took some time to collect the bayat – an oath of allegiance – from the scattered members of the council. A working speculation by analysts is that members of the shura could begin to declare bayah to a third al-Qaeda leader within the next few weeks.
Al-Qaeda’s leadership in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, has also been destroyed by US and Saudi Arabian operations.
Can al-Qaeda reinvent itself?
However, there may be opportunities for al-Qaeda to reinvent itself—whether Adel becomes the next leader or whether al-Qaeda turns to the next generation of battle-hardened African jihadists.
The UN Panel of Experts on International Terrorism believes that “the international context favors [al Qaeda]who intends to once again be recognized as the leader of the world jihad.”
If ISIS has weakened in the Middle East (although it maintains a lethal presence through its African affiliates and has survived in parts of Syria and Iraq)[al Qaeda] propaganda is now better developed to compete with ISIS [ISIS] as a key participant in inspiring an international threat,” the UN experts concluded.
In Afghanistan, al-Qaeda’s predominant presence has been in the south and east, although UN experts have noted that it may be seeking to establish a presence in the western provinces bordering Iran.
Al-Qaeda has friends in Afghanistan, in addition to its long historical ties to the Haqqani Network, a powerful player within the Taliban regime. Its branches in Central Asia, such as the Islamic Party of Turkestan, also maintain a presence.
It seems likely that whoever succeeds Zawahiri will still have the center of gravity of the group’s leadership in Afghanistan as long as the Taliban rule the country, even if many of his operations are thousands of miles away.
The successor’s challenge will be to restore the group’s relevance by leveraging disparate franchises across Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and perhaps inspire a new generation to launch attacks on its behalf in Western cities.