Aiman al Zawahiri was the bankruptcy trustee of al Qaeda. In the eleven years since the death of founder Osama bin Laden, Zawahiri has been able to hold the terror network together for the most part, but has not prevented its demise. Experts therefore see the US assassination attempt on Zawahiri as a “death knell” for the terrorist organization’s global claims. The al-Qaeda leadership is likely to lose influence, and local groups in the Middle East and Africa will be strengthened. Despite this, Al Qaeda remains dangerous.
Although Zawahiri was regarded as the strategic head of the group, he lacked bin Laden’s charisma. He had been hunted by the United States for years and therefore hardly dared to come out of cover. The fact that the 71-year-old was primarily concerned with his own survival was a success of the western anti-terrorist strategy. Security forces from the US and other countries have killed several high-ranking al-Qaeda officials in their hideouts in recent years. Among them was Zawahiri’s deputy, Abu Mohamed al-Masri, who was shot dead in the Iranian capital Tehran two years ago – probably by Israeli agents on behalf of Washington.
The pressure of persecution makes communication between the al-Qaeda leadership and local organizations difficult. Major terrorist attacks on the West like the attacks of September 11, 2001 were out of the question for Zawahiri. This pressure will not let up: The drone attack by the American secret service on Zawahiri in the Afghan capital Kabul was also a signal to other leaders. Afghanistan is not safe for them.
Under this pressure, it is “difficult, if not impossible, for the leadership of al Qaeda to lead a global terrorist organization,” says terrorism expert Daniel Byman of the US think tank Brookings Institution. Byman’s colleague Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute in Washington commented that the Zawahiri attack may have been the “death knell” for al Qaeda as a global organization.
Even during Zawahiri’s lifetime, the al-Qaeda headquarters lost much influence over branches of the terror network. In Syria, the Nusra Front broke away from al Qaeda without Zawahiri being able to prevent it. The Islamic State (IS) became Al Qaeda’s competitor until the ISIS “caliphate” collapsed and its leaders were also targeted by the US. This gave rise to what Lister calls a “local model of jihad”. Smaller groups, left to their own devices, no longer feel bound by instructions from a distant headquarters.
It is not clear who will become the new head of Al Qaeda after Zawahiri. Lister sees the Egyptian Saif al-Adel as the most promising candidate. Nobility lived in Iran for a long time; according to some reports he is still there, according to other information he is in Afghanistan today. Adel is controversial in the organization because of his connection to Iran, says Lister: Shiite Iran is an opponent of the Sunni extremists of al Qaeda, but tolerates the presence of al Qaeda representatives in the country because the terrorist organization refrains from attacks in Iran . Another aspirant is Ahmed Umar, leader of Al Shabab, Al Qaeda’s Somalia affiliate. Zawahiri’s son-in-law, Abdel Rahman al Magrebi, may also have a chance of becoming al-Qaeda’s chief post. The Moroccan, a software expert trained in Germany, heads Al Qaeda’s media group, Al Sahab.
The new boss will have to live with the fact that his word counts less than it did with bin Laden. However, the centrifugal forces at Al Qaeda do not mean that the danger of terrorism is decreasing. Al Shabab killed at least 30 African Union soldiers in an attack a few months ago. The al-Qaeda organization in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) organized an attack in the USA three years ago: A Saudi AQAP member shot dead three sailors at a US Navy base in Florida. New dangers could also emanate from the al-Qaeda headquarters, because the future leader could try to consolidate his leadership position with an attack in the west.