Zawahiri’s Death and What’s Next for al Qaeda

In the early morning hours of Sunday, July 31, 2022, a CIA-operated remote piloted aircraft fired two Hellfire missiles at a house in Kabul, Afghanistan. The lone victim of the strike was confirmed to be al Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was living with his family in a safe house approximately two miles from the site of the former U.S. embassy in Afghanistan. Despite two decades of relentless counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda’s core leadership, Zawahiri’s death paves the way for only the second leadership transition in the group’s four-decade history. This CSIS Critical Questions evaluates the implications of Zawahiri’s death for al Qaeda and the global salafi-jihadist movement, for the de facto Taliban government that provided him refuge, and for the future of U.S. counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan.

Q1: How is al Qaeda’s senior leadership expected to evolve in the wake of Zawahiri’s death?

A1: The death of Ayman al-Zawahiri raises an immediate question of who will take over the position of al Qaeda emir and how the organization will manage this transition. Despite al Qaeda’s long history, Zawahiri’s death prompts only the second leadership transition for the group. Moreover, Zawahiri was designated to succeed Osama bin Laden as emir of al Qaeda under the terms of a 2001 merger between the group and Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad. At present, al Qaeda likely does not have an established succession plan to facilitate an orderly transition of power. Rather, senior al Qaeda cadres must engage in a delicate process of internal power brokering, and then preserve the allegiance of al Qaeda leaders and affiliates worldwide.

This transition comes at a delicate moment for al Qaeda. While the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has provided the group some amount of respite, al Qaeda is focused on mobilizing the resources required to recruit new fighters and recover its external operations capability. Moreover, many veteran al Qaeda cadres have been killed by counterterrorism operations in recent years, diminishing institutional knowledge and relationships among the ranks of senior al Qaeda leadership. This includes the 2019 killing of al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) leader Asim Umar and shura council member Abu Muhsin al-Masri.

The most visible and likely contender to replace Zawahiri as al Qaeda emir is Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian national and veteran al Qaeda operative. Adel’s leadership in al Qaeda is significant and longstanding. Adel managed al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan during the late 1980s and early 1990s, training figures like 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef, before decamping to Sudan where Adel continued giving training on explosives. Following al Qaeda’s expulsion from Sudan, Adel reportedly continued military training activities in Afghanistan before taking refuge in Iran following the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. In 2021, the UN Security Council assessed that Adel continued to reside in Iran but would have to relocate should he assume the role of overall al Qaeda leader. The strike on Zawahiri, however, underscores both the ability and willingness of the United States to strike against senior al Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan, underscoring the danger of relocation to Afghanistan. Moreover, Adel’s long residency in Iran raises questions of how easily the veteran al Qaeda operative could step out of Iranian sanctuary and claim the mantle of al Qaeda leadership.

Abd al-Rahman al-Maghrebi, a Moroccan national and son-in-law of Zawahiri, is also a contender to become emir of al Qaeda. Maghrebi, like Adel, is believed to reside in Iran and is the head of al Qaeda’s propaganda arm, al-Sahab. Given Adel and Maghrebi’s longtime residency in Iran, however, the extent of their influence over senior al Qaeda leaders, and by extension, their ability to manage a delicate succession process, remains to be seen.

Senior members of al Qaeda’s Hittin Committee, which governs and coordinates the group’s global leadership, will ultimately play a significant role in managing the leadership transition. While Adel and Maghrebi are the senior and second senior members of the committee, respectively, the group also includes representation from al Qaeda’s global affiliates who are potential contenders to succeed Zawahiri. These individuals include Abu Ubaydah Yusuf al-Anabi, current leader of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Ahmed Diriye, the leader of al Shabaab. Although the unlikely selection of an al Qaeda leader from beyond the group’s traditional Afghanistan-Pakistan territory would be unprecedented, it would be a recognition of the increasing importance these affiliates play in the future of the jihadist movement.

Q2: What are the implications of Zawahiri’s death of the global al Qaeda movement and regional affiliates?

A2: Zawahiri’s death carries important symbolic weight for al Qaeda, in which Zawahiri has been a figurehead for decades. Pro-al Qaeda social media and messaging channels quickly sought to frame Zawahiri’s death as a boon for global jihad that would reinvigorate al Qaeda. Jihadist groups and al Qaeda media outlets will also likely use Zawahiri’s death as a rallying cry to incite attacks against the United States and other Western targets, as they did in the aftermath of the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

The operational and tactical implications for al Qaeda’s regional affiliates are limited in scope. Once a new al Qaeda emir is selected, regional affiliates will likely make bay’ah—an allegiance oath—to the new leader, much as affiliates did to Zawahiri following the death of Osama bin Laden. This pledge, however, does not necessarily presage any change to the operational patterns of al Qaeda affiliates. Many of al Qaeda’s affiliates, particularly in Africa, have adopted a global jihadist vocabulary while focusing their efforts primarily on local conflicts and insurgency. Still, Zawahiri’s successor, as the leader of a global movement, will have an undeniable influence on the future of the organization. As scholars Tricia Bacon and Elizabeth Grimm have outlined, the next al Qaeda emir could embody any number of archetypes, from a status quo “caretaker” to a disruptive “visionary” that attempts to push al Qaeda in unique directions.

Over the past two decades, al Qaeda has decentralized, increasing the importance of developments in al Qaeda’s “branches” relative to its “core.” Al Qaeda’s central leadership has systematically delegated responsibility for operational planning to affiliates. The result is that there are now numerous al Qaeda affiliates in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and elsewhere that carry out attacks and wage insurgency independently from al Qaeda’s senior leadership. For example, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) in the African Sahel is deeply enmeshed in endogenous local conflicts and dynamics and possesses sufficient self-governance and self-sufficiency to autonomously expand its insurgency. Other al Qaeda affiliates are more closely linked to al Qaeda’s global leadership and therefore could be able to play a larger role in the direction of al Qaeda moving forward. Al Shabaab, for example, is assessed by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to be “the largest, wealthiest and most lethal al-Qaeda affiliate in the world.” Al Shabaab also directly provides financial support to al Qaeda senior leadership from its coffers and has a demonstrated capability and intent to organize plots against the United States. Disagreements over the correct emphasis on “local” versus “global” goals are part and parcel of al Shabaab’s history, however, and al Qaeda’s leadership transition could reinvigorate those debates.

Q3: How is the Islamic State reacting to the death of al Qaeda’s leader?

A3: The Islamic State has made no secret of its contempt for Zawahiri and the Taliban. Islamic State propaganda often accuses the Taliban and al Qaeda’s current leadership of straying from Osama bin Laden’s vision for al Qaeda, with particularly hostile words for the Taliban’s decision to negotiate the Doha Agreement with the United States—which it accuses al Qaeda of endorsing. Immediately following Zawahiri’s death, Islamic State supporters posted celebratory messages with titles like “The Clown is Dead” and “The Dog Has Perished.”

Prior to Zawahiri’s death, al Qaeda’s general fortunes appeared to be on the ascent. The group’s presence in Afghanistan under Taliban rule was largely secure. In the words of the chief of the United Nation’s sanctions monitoring team, al Qaeda has been in a period of “strategic restraint" since the collapse of the Afghan government. Over the past year, al Qaeda reenergized its media wing, likely in an effort to challenge the Islamic State’s efforts to supplant al Qaeda as the recognized leader of the global salafi-jihadist movement. Nevertheless, Zawahiri’s involvement in this campaign merely reinforced his decades-long reputation for being tedious, uncharismatic, and ideologically inconsistent. His first major contribution to al Qaeda after the collapse of the Afghan government was an 852-page book on “political corruption and its effects on the history of Muslims.” At the time of his death, he had recently completed the sixth episode in an ongoing series of incoherent lectures entitled “Deal of the Century or the Crusade of the Century.”

Islamic State supporters, for their part, have long prepared for Zawahiri’s death, and several of the group’s media arms suggest that the Islamic State also expects Adel to be appointed as the next al Qaeda emir. An Islamic State message from September 11, 2021 referred to Adel as “Saif the fool,” demanded that he—as the presumptive second-in-command of al Qaeda—deliver immediate proof of life for Zawahiri, and referred to the 9/11 attacks as the “oxygen which al Qaeda breathes.” Zawahiri’s death potentially places al Qaeda at an immediate disadvantage in its efforts to reestablish its brand and global leadership, as none of the group’s immediate successors maintain a public persona. The Islamic State clearly intends to exploit al Qaeda’s interregnum as an opportunity to continue disparaging “the fools of the apostate al Qaeda.”

Q4: Was the Taliban sheltering Zawahiri?

A4: While it has been widely accepted that the de facto Taliban government is providing a safe haven to al Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan, the presence of Zawahiri at a safe house in an affluent Kabul neighborhood renders meaningless any Taliban suggestion that they are not actively harboring transnational militant groups to which they retain deep, historic ties. As a February 2022 UN assessment of militant activities in Afghanistan starkly noted, “There are no recent signs that the Taliban has taken steps to limit the activities of foreign terrorist fighters in the country. On the contrary, terrorist groups enjoy greater freedom there than at any time in recent history.”

In the immediate wake of the targeted strike, U.S. officials directly accused elements of the Haqqani Taliban of harboring Zawahiri and taking steps to conceal evidence of the strike. The house where Zawahiri was killed is reportedly owned by a top aide to Sirajuddin Haqqani. The direct connection to the Haqqani network brings into stark focus longstanding concerns about the implications of Sirajuddin Haqqani serving as Afghanistan’s de facto interior minister. The collapse of the Afghan National Government established Sirajuddin Haqqani, a decades-long ally of al Qaeda, as one of the most powerful officials in Kabul. Al Qaeda, the Haqqanis, and the Taliban share deep ties that have developed over decades. The Haqqani network has long been identified as the primary Taliban liaison to al Qaeda. In February 2020, Zawahiri met with members of the Haqqani network, who consulted the al Qaeda leader on the terms of the Doha Agreement with the United States, according to a UN report.

U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken has now accused the Taliban of gross violations of the Doha Agreement, in which the group provided assurances that Afghanistan would not be used as a safe haven for international terrorist groups. As recently as July 6, 2022, the Taliban’s supreme leader reaffirmed the group’s hollow guarantee that it “will not allow anyone to use our territory to threaten the security of other countries.” Sirajuddin Haqqani made similar comments in January 2022. All of these statements were unironically delivered as al Qaeda continued releasing lengthy videos throughout 2022 featuring Zawahiri. In one video, he quoted Hamas cofounder Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi’s statement that “we must besiege America with terror,” and Osama bin Laden’s oath that “America shall never dream of peace until we experience peace in Palestine and until all disbelieving enemies leave the land of Muhammad.”

Q5: What does the strike mean for future counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan?

A5: The Zawahiri operation, which was conducted by the CIA, confirms that the United States retains some capacity to conduct operations against high value targets in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, it was the first U.S. counterterrorism operation in Afghanistan since an August 2021 strike killed 10 civilians. It is not immediately clear why CIA, rather than DOD, carried out the strike, however U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) leaders have repeatedly described the challenging prospects for conducting “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan. CENTCOM commanders cite geographical constraints, most notably basing and overflight requirements, for dramatically reduce the amount of dwell time that remotely piloted aircraft like the MQ-9 Reaper can loiter over targets in Afghanistan. Combined with the loss of on-the-ground human intelligence networks following the U.S. withdrawal, the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations necessary to find, fix, and achieve high confidence targeting of foreign terrorists in Afghanistan is exceedingly difficult.

Early reports of the Zawahiri strike do not suggest that the United States has solved the myriad challenges limiting its capacity to carry out counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan at scale. Instead, the intelligence preparation for this unique operation marks the culmination of decades of relentless work by the U.S. intelligence community (IC) and DOD to track and target one of the most wanted men in the world. It should not come as any surprise that the United States is capable of conducting periodic counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, preparation for the operation was extensive. The groundwork reportedly focused on tracking Zawahiri’s family’s movement to Kabul, confirming the arrival of the al Qaeda emir, and generating models and conducting engineering assessments of the safe house to increase confidence that there would not be collateral damage associated with an airstrike in an urban area.

Jake Harrington is an intelligence fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Jared Thompson is a research associate with the Transnational Threats Project at CSIS.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Jared Thompson

Jared Thompson

Research Associate, Transnational Threats Project