Al-Qaeda’s “bizarre” silence on Zawahiri’s successor

PARIS: Five months after the United States announced the murder of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan, the global jihadist group has yet to confirm his death or announce a new boss.
In early August, US President Joe Biden said US armed forces fired two missiles from a drone flying over the Afghan capital, hitting al-Zawahiri’s safehouse and killing him.
But the group’s propaganda arms continued to broadcast undated audio or video messages from the bearded Egyptian ideologue who led the group after US special forces in 2011 killed its charismatic founder Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
“It’s really weird,” said Hans-Jakob Schindler, director of the Counter-Extremism Project think tank.
“A network only works with a leader. It takes a person around whom everything happens.”
Almost all options remain open.
“It could of course be that the United States is wrong about his death,” researchers Raffaello Pantucci and Kabir Taneja wrote in early December on the Lawfare website.
But “that seems unlikely given the confidence with which President Biden has spoken publicly about the strike.”
Another possibility is that the group has so far failed to make contact with Zawahiri’s most likely successor, its former number two, who goes by the nom de guerre Saif al-Adl or “the sword of Justice”.
A former lieutenant colonel in Egypt’s special forces who turned to jihadism in the 1980s, he is suspected by observers of being in Iran.
The Islamic republic’s Shiite leaders officially oppose Sunni al-Qaeda, but opponents have repeatedly accused Iran of cooperating with the network and offering sanctuary to its leaders.
For Schindler, Saif al-Adl “is a handicap but also an asset for the Iranian regime”.
Depending on his interests, Tehran could decide to deliver him to the United States, or allow him to attack the West.
Al-Qaeda could also remain silent about Zawahiri’s disappearance under pressure from the Taliban, Pantucci and Taneja suggested.
The group released a carefully worded statement in August, neither confirming Zawahiri’s presence in Afghanistan nor acknowledging his death.
“Their decision not to comment may be part of their efforts to manage their fragile but deep relationship with al-Qaeda, while avoiding drawing attention to the presence of a foreign terrorist group in direct violation of their agreement with the United States,” they said.
Saif al-Adl could also be dead or in hiding to avoid the fate of his predecessor or the last two leaders of the network’s main rival, the Islamic State group, who were also killed last year.
Zawahiri did not try to emulate bin Laden’s charisma and influence after taking over the network, but played a key role in decentralizing the group.
Al-Qaeda today is a far cry from the group that perpetrated the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
It now has self-contained franchises scattered across the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia that are much less dependent on central command than before in terms of operations, funding, and strategy.
Barak Mendelsohn, a US-based al-Qaida expert, said it was unclear why the group was taking time to announce a new leader, adding the delay was not “very significant”.
“Ultimately, the expectation reflects the limited importance of Al-Qaeda Central,” he said.
“It is a symbol that unites groups across borders, but its operational relevance is weak.”
Al-Qaida’s sworn enemy, the Islamic State, has faced similar difficulties securing its leadership since its “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi killed himself in a US raid in Syria in 2019.
After the death of its two successors last year, IS chose an unknown as its new leader this fall, who claims the heritage of the Prophet’s Quraysh tribe to bolster his legitimacy.
Tore Hamming, a fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization, said it was not essential for al-Qaeda to have a token leader to speak on its behalf.
“We have seen with the (group) Islamic State since 2019, it does not necessarily matter,” he said.
ISIS elected new caliphs, but “nobody knew who they were and never heard of them. Yet the affiliates remained loyal”, he explained.
“For al-Qaida, it could be the same, just with a council of personalities playing the role of an emir”, or a leader.


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