On Jul. 31, 2022, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri was targeted by US intelligence and killed by two Hellfire missiles at a safe house in Kabul, Afghanistan. Al-Zawahri’s death is a victory for US counterterrorism efforts and quells doubts over US intelligence capabilities in Afghanistan following last summer’s withdrawal. Al-Qaida now needs to reckon with a severely denigrated organization and a leadership vacuum.
Despite the challenges that lie ahead for the organization, al-Zawahri’s death also presents an unprecedented opportunity for the global jihadi movement to re-brand the terrorist organization and field a game-changer leader. The new leader’s main task will be uniting and mobilizing al-Qaida’s affiliates for the global jihadi cause and leveraging their capabilities to launch external operations against the West.
But is there a leader out there who can do that?
AL-QAIDA’S CURRENT STATE
Al-Zawahri leaves al-Qaida’s Core quite denigrated. The organization that was previously based out of Afghanistan and the tribal areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and led command and control of the broader organization, has lost many of its leaders and funding. The group has also sustained significant territorial and operational losses in the two decades since 9/11. While there is little doubt that al-Qaida’s remaining senior leadership would like to conduct external operations and strike targets in the West, in the short term, it seems highly unlikely that the group will be able to quickly reconstitute and launch retaliatory or other external attacks from Afghanistan against targets in the West.
Al-Qaida’s affiliates, however, have thrived. Al-Shabaab, for example, continues to leverage instability in East Africa to attack US targets in the region. But the majority of these affiliates have had local agendas in recent years, and have primarily posed a threat to their own countries and regions. In other words, they don’t have international aspirations like al-Qaida. And while al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula has previously demonstrated real capability in launching external ops against the West, in recent years it has also been embroiled in Yemen’s ongoing war.
In addition to affiliates becoming more focused on internal issues and domestic grievances, al-Qaida has suffered from having a noncharismatic leader like al-Zawahri. Under al-Zawahri’s leadership, the organization failed to achieve any 9/11-like spectacular attacks. And his lackluster audio messages also failed to inspire aspiring jihadis in the West, resulting in the Islamic State not only entering the global jihadi scene but owning it for several years.
HOW ISIS TOOK OVER
Unlike al-Zawahri’s monotonous audio messages, ISIS’s flashy propaganda materials — including slick and often brutal videos depicting life in the “Caliphate” and the execution of Western prisoners, graphics depicting Western targets, and live attack videos made and streamed by ISIS-inspired jihadists across the world — were tailor-made for millennial jihadis, and drove the organization’s recruitment and mobilization efforts.
Al-Zawahri’s inability to hold on to al-Qaida’s dominance of the global jihadi movement let ISIS seize the opportunity to lead, and drive the pace and type of attacks for several years.
In the fall of 2014, shortly after declaring a caliphate in Iraq and Syria, ISIS spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani began a messaging drive to reach both hardened and would-be jihadists. Al-Adnani called on Muslims as far west as San Bernardino and as far east as Sydney to migrate to the Caliphate, where, as advertised in the slick videos the Islamic State soon became synonymous with, one could lead a pious and utopian Islamic life, free of Western discrimination and oppression. Al-Adnani didn’t stop there. For those unable to make the great migration, al-Adnani encouraged them to carry out jihad at home, using items as simple as kitchen knives or rocks or their bare hands, to carry out their mission.
Al-Adnani, not to mention ISIS’s entire propaganda and messaging apparatus, was highly successful. Between 2014 and 2018, more than 40,000 foreign fighters emigrated or tried to emigrate to the caliphate. And according to the US Homeland Security Committee, approximately 250 plots and attacks were planned or carried out in the West under the Islamic State’s name. Much of ISIS’s success in mobilizing individuals across the world to carry out violence in the group’s name came from its ability to leverage social media and flashy visual tools to attract and inspire individuals from all walks of life. The organization also masterfully empowered would-be jihadis to plan and plot their own attacks, to choose their targets (either in their own backyards or elsewhere in the world), and to pick the tactics they felt most comfortable using.
ISIS’s democratization of jihad was nothing short of revolutionary. In addition to its propaganda and recruitment strategies, ISIS was also tactically savvy in how it amped up support and action globally. Unlike al-Qaida, which was fastidious when it came to deciding who was deemed fit enough to be considered an affiliate, ISIS was much less discerning. In addition to declaring wilayats (Islamic State’s territorial claims) across the world, ISIS gladly accepted pledges of allegiance from other jihadi groups. And unlike al-Qaida’s desire and proclivity for the spectacular, ISIS again was less discerning, believing that terror need not inflict mass casualties and include spectacular tactics, but could be just as effective using everyday items like a car or knives.
And thus, the threat environment shifted, beginning in the fall of 2014, from externally-directed operations and those enabled by terrorist groups and their affiliates, to truly inspired plots and attacks, with little to no connection to the ISIS Caliphate leadership. In the immediate years following al-Adnani’s call for action, individuals inspired by ISIS dominated the national security headlines, only experiencing a slowdown with the decimation of ISIS’s strongholds in Iraq and Syria and the ramped-up global counterterrorism efforts of intelligence and law enforcement agencies. In other words, al-Zawahri’s inability to hold on to al-Qaida’s dominance of the global jihadi movement let ISIS seize the opportunity to lead, and drive the pace and type of attacks for several years.
UNPRECEDENTED OPPORTUNITY FOR GEN Z JIHADISTS
Saif al-Adel, a long-standing and senior al-Qaida leader, has long been tapped as Zawahri’s likely successor. Al-Adel has played critical roles in previous al-Qaida operations, including the 1998 bombing of the US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. However, al-Adel is currently believed to still be held in Iran and has thus far also not demonstrated the ability to rally the global jihadi community. In order to regain its supremacy as a global jihadi movement, al-Qaida will need to do much more, like identify a leader who can take not only take the helm of the organization and usher it into a new era.
Al-Zawahri’s death, therefore, presents an unprecedented, and dangerous, opportunity for the global jihadi movement to re-brand the terrorist organization. One way it can do this is to field a game-changer of a leader. Such a leader would need to embody many of the qualities that made the likes of Anwar al-Awlaki of al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula and al-Adnani resonate with would-be jihadis across the world and employ the tactics that ISIS used to democratize jihad successfully. This new leader would need to rally aspiring jihadis over common, contemporary grievances over the West, revamp the group’s propaganda and recruiting strategies, and attract a new legion of Gen Z jihadists to the global jihadi cause.
Glorifying martyrdom has been a staple of the Salafi-Jihadi movement, and in the post-9/11 era, propagandists, such as al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula’s al-Awlaki and ISIS’s al-Adnani have been hailed as martyrs, among other organizational leaderships figures, and their words have been shared, glorified, and served as inspiration for countless would-be jihadis. For example, al-Awlaki successfully inspired and mobilized western jihadis to carry out several high-profile attacks in the West, including the 2013 Boston Marathon attacks, the 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper headquarters in Paris, and the 2015 San Bernardino, CA shooting and was intimately involved in other notable plots. His sermons continue to be available online and continue to inspire aspiring jihadis. As noted earlier, al-Adnani successfully inspired and mobilized hundreds of aspiring jihadis across the world.
In the near-term, US targets in regions with robust al-Qaida affiliates should certainly be aware of potential retaliation. There has already been noted chatter across social media and deep web platforms discussing al-Zawahri’s death and revenge operations, which US intelligence and law enforcement should continue to closely monitor to assess potential retaliatory attacks launched by lone actors. In the longer term, while al-Qaida’s next official leader certainly has numerous challenges ahead of them, we should also be on the look for a new propagandist or ideologue who can usher the organization into a new era.
Naureen Kabir is a Managing Director with Teneo, a global advisory firm, and leads the company’s Risk Intelligence program. Between 2010 and 2020, she served with the New York Police Department’s Counterterrorism and Intelligence Bureaus, most recently in the role of Deputy Director of Counterterrorism Intelligence Analysis.