Ayman Zawahiri was widely accepted and respected by al Qaeda’s different regional branches because of his role in the group’s formation in the 1980s. But the next leader may have trouble exercising such authority, experts say.
Al Qaeda’s overlord Ayman Zawahiri, who took the reins of the feared armed group after the United States liquidated its founding leader Osama Bin Laden in 2011, met a similar fate on Sunday when a drone strike ordered by President Joe Biden . The operation consisted of an assault with a drone on a house located in Kabul, the Afghan capital, killing the 71-year-old leader.
Who was Ayman al Zawahiri?
Ayman al Zawahiri was born in Cairo, Egypt’s capital, on June 19, 1951. His family was respectable middle-class, many of whom were doctors and academics.
His father was a professor of pharmacology at Cairo University, his grandfather was grand imam of al-Azhar, the center of Sunni Islamic learning in the Middle East, and one of his uncles was the first secretary general of the Arab League.
Al Zawahiri became involved in political Islam while still attending school and was arrested at the age of 15 for being a member of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest and largest Islamic organization in Egypt.
However, his political activities did not prevent him from graduating as a doctor in 1974 and then obtaining a specialization in eye surgery four years later.
At first he carried on the family tradition, developing a medical clinic in a Cairo suburb, but he soon found himself drawn to radical Islamist groups and in 1973 joined the newly founded Egyptian Islamic Jihad, opposed to his country’s secular government.
In 1981 he was arrested with other members of the organization accused of the assassination of President Anwar Sadat during a military parade.
During the mass trial, al-Zawahiri emerged as the leader of the group and was filmed declaring in court: “We are Muslims who believe in our religion. Our intention is to found an Islamic state and an Islamic society.”
Although he was not linked to Sadat’s assassination, he served a three-year prison sentence for illegal weapons possession. According to his fellow inmates, Al Zawahiri was regularly tortured and beaten during this period, an experience that allegedly transformed him into a fanatical and violent extremist.
After being released in 1985, he moved to Saudi Arabia. Shortly thereafter he headed to Pakistan and then to neighboring Afghanistan, where he established an Egyptian Islamic Jihad faction, while working as a doctor in that country during the Soviet occupation.
He was a central figure in a series of attacks on government targets in Egypt and a violent campaign to establish an Islamic state in the 1990s that claimed the lives of more than 1,200 Egyptians.
A military court in Egypt sentenced him to death as an absentee.
Experts believe that after Zawahiri’s assassination, which took place on the balcony of the safe house that Zawahiri used to frequent to get some fresh air, al Qaeda is likely to face a difficult task in remaining relevant both in the local as well as global front, especially as Daesh is stealing its limelight in Afghanistan and beyond.
“Al Qaeda will lose more power and its global relevance after Zawahiri’s death, being more active in other areas such as Yemen, Syria and Africa. Daesh in Afghanistan is now more powerful than Al Qaeda,” says Kamal Alam, a military analyst and non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“Al Qaeda itself is a shadow of what it used to be in the region. Zawahiri has been tactically irrelevant and not a threat beyond the symbolism of his audio and video tapes,” Alam tells TRT World, referring to the al Qaeda leader’s diminishing influence over radical networks.
While Zawahiri’s influence has waned in recent years, he has earned the respect of nearly every branch of al Qaeda. So, analysts say, it will be difficult for al Qaeda’s future leader to take Zawahiri’s place and the new commander-in-chief is likely to face a “credibility” problem in light of the group’s increasing decentralization, Jerome says. Drevon, a senior analyst for militant groups like Al Qaeda at the International Crisis Group, an American think tank.
Obaidullah Baheer, an Afghan political analyst and professor at the American University in Kabul, also believes losing Zawahiri could increase tensions within al Qaeda.
“In the absence of a clear successor to Zawahiri, there will be internal tensions within the group regarding ascension. It is difficult to assess whether an al Qaeda split will pose a greater or lesser threat to international security,” Baheer told TRT World.
Who will be Zawahiri’s successor?
“Just like when Bin Laden was killed, Al Qaeda will have to conduct internal consultations before appointing a new leader. There are internal rules about succession, but we shouldn’t take any names for granted,” said Jerome Drevon.
For possible candidates for al Qaeda’s next leader, Drevon refers to a recent UN report, which suggested several prominent members such as Sayf al Adl, an Egyptian like Zawahiri, and Abd al Rahman al Maghrebi, Zawahiri’s son-in-law, both located in Iran, in addition to the leaders of JNIM in the Sahel and Al Shabab in Somalia.
“All names are problematic for Al Qaeda. Being in Iran raises questions about their ability to make decisions independently,” Drevon observes, referring to the fact that Al Qaeda is a Sunni-dominated organization, while Iran is a majority Shiite country.
Al Qaeda has already had a succession plan for the post-Zawahiri period, says
“There is a list of possible successors with different branches proposing names. The succession is well prepared, so in a week or two we could have the official announcements,” Firdous told TRT World. Like Drevon, Firdous also names Al Adl and Al Maghrebi as possible successors to Zawahiri.
While al-Adl is “a great strategist” and “experienced,” many might “question the integrity of his leadership” because he continues to live under the surveillance of the Iranian government, according to Firdous. Al Maghrebi, the other strong candidate for leadership, is “a skilled tactician,” says Firdous, being the editor of As Sahab, the official media wing of al Qaeda’s central leadership based in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Why the new leadership matters
Both candidates’ connections to Iran could play a crucial role in determining the group’s future strategy because the leaders have a clear say in Al Qaeda’s political decisions. Many experts believe that al Qaeda’s regional branches will raise serious objections to a strategy aligned with Iranian interests.
“If the leader prefers external operations, we could see a return to the Far Enemy strategy of the old days; on the contrary, if the leader maintains the Zawahiri strategy, Al Qaeda will keep a low profile and concentrate on rebuilding its network in critical areas such as Syria”, says Firdous.
“But in general, Al Qaeda’s center is in Afghanistan, and with the Taliban, their freedom of movement is limited when it comes to planning attacks,” he added. As a result, killing Zawahiri could prompt the militant group to choose a hardline successor with global ambitions.
, believes that Zawahiri’s importance decreased largely because the importance of his organization decreased. “It was more of a brand for various ‘like-minded’ but largely autonomous and highly variable groups in, say, Somalia, Mali, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, etc., most of which were not very significant in those countries”, Moiz. he tells TRT World.
After Zawahiri’s murder, both the US and the Taliban accused each other of rape. The Taliban said the Americans violated the agreement by carrying out an armed operation on Afghan soil. Washington said the Taliban did not abide by the agreement and continued to harbor al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan.