TERRORISMWhat Zawahiri’s Killing Means for al-Qaeda

By Bruce Hoffman

Published 3 August 2022

Ayman al-Zawahiri leaves behind a robust network of strategically aligned but tactically independent al-Qaeda affiliates operating in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

President Joe Biden revealed that a U.S. drone strike killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri over the weekend. How much of a role did Zawahiri play in the movement?
Zawahiri was critical to al-Qaeda’s survival in the decade since the 2011 killing of its previous leader, Osama bin Laden. He held the movement together through his force of personality and strategic vision, which was to allow the various al-Qaeda franchises to pursue their local and regional agendas and have complete tactical independence. It has been successful. Both al-Shabaab and Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) have a robust presence in East Africa and the Sahel, respectively; al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is still fighting in Yemen; Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent has spread to Bangladesh, India, the Maldives, Myanmar, and Pakistan; and Hurras al-Din remains Al-Qaeda’s stalking horse in the Levant. None of this would have been possible without Zawahiri. Even though the al-Qaeda affiliates have had enormous independence, they have also adhered to the group’s ideology and conformed to Zawahiri’s strategy. That will continue.

What’s next for al-Qaeda?
Al-Qaeda has a succession plan, and Saif al-Adel, a long-standing senior al-Qaeda commander, is the most likely candidate to succeed Zawahiri. A former officer in an Egyptian Army special operations unit, Adel played a critical role in the 1998 bombing of the American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; orchestrated al-Qaeda’s failed terrorist campaign in Saudi Arabia in 2003; tutored and mentored Hamza bin Laden, Osama’s son and reputed heir as al-Qaeda emir; and, in recent years, oversaw al-Qaeda’s operations in Syria.

Adel should be effective in holding the al-Qaeda universe together. After all, in a few days, al-Qaeda will celebrate its thirty-fourth anniversary. A terrorist group doesn’t survive three-plus decades being dependent on one leader only. The State Department’s list of foreign terrorist groups now contains four times as many groups sharing al-Qaeda’s ideology than it did on 9/11. So, one way or another, the war bin Laden declared more than quarter a century ago will continue at some level.