The United States has killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, and al-Qaeda is set to witness its second leadership change since its inception in 1988. Al-Zawahiri had taken over as the second ‘emir’ or chief of the global terrorist organisation after US Navy SEALS killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011. Al-Zawahiri, the torch-bearer of global jihad for over a decade, was killed in a drone strike in Kabul on Saturday (July 30).
When bin Laden was taken out, al-Zawahiri, the former leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), was seen as his clear successor. Al-Zawahiri was a close friend and longtime deputy to bin Laden, and the terms of the 2001 merger of al-Qaeda and the EIJ had zeroed in on al-Zawahiri as the next emir. But the present situation is different — and may see more than one person running for leadership of al-Qaeda.
The following men are among the candidates to succeed al-Zawahiri. According to a recent report by a UN experts’ team, three of the four individuals in the race — Abd al-Rahman al-Maghribi, Yezid Mebarek, and Ahmed Diriye — are non-Egyptian Africans; a new development in an outfit that is usually seen to have Arabs and Egyptians at its heart. The fourth man, an Egyptian like al-Zawahiri, is considered to be the frontrunner: Saif al-Adel.
SAIF AL-ADEL: One of al-Qaeda’s leading military chiefs, Saif al-Adel was the caretaker emir after Osama bin Laden’s death and until al-Zawahiri’s succession was confirmed. Ali Soufan, the former FBI agent and author of ‘Anatomy of Terror’, describes al-Adel as “one of the most experienced professional soldiers in the worldwide jihadi movement”.
A former Egyptian special forces commando, al-Adel is a low-key, largely mysterious character who is considered ruthless in meeting his terror goals. In an article for the Combating Terrorism Centre, Soufan wrote that al-Adel’s former associates described him as “highly educated (with) good English”, and a “shrewd diplomat” who can be brutal in the heat of the moment. They also said that he was difficult to work with because he did not trust anyone.
Once in charge of bin Laden’s security, al-Adel has been a trusted al-Qaeda emissary to deal with groups and states that the terror outfit seeks to do business with to find safe havens or to expand its operations.
Operating under an assumed name that means the “Sword of Justice”, Saif al-Adel is known to have faked his own death at a very young age. The US has put a bounty of $10 million on his head for his role in the killing of 224 people in the simultaneously bombings of American embassies in the East African cities of Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on August 7, 1998. These attacks, Ali Soufan has pointed out, came shortly after al-Adel had received explosives training from Imad Mugniyah, among the most dangerous operatives of Hezbollah in Lebanon at the time. Mugniyah, who Ali Soufan says was “responsible for the deaths of more Americans than any other terrorist prior to 9/11”, was killed in 2008.
Al-Adel was also linked to the killing of the American journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002. After the 9/11 attacks, al-Adel went into hiding in Iran, where he continues to remain despite intermittent periods of incarceration.
Some analysts, however, believe that al-Adel might not be keen to take up al-Zawahiri’s job because of his preference to avoid the spotlight, given his military and intelligence roles.
ABD AL-RAHMAN AL-MAGHRIBI: Abd al-Rahman al-Maghribi is the son-in-law of al-Zawahiri. He was born in Morocco, and later studied software programming in Germany. According to the FBI, he later travelled to Afghanistan where he was tasked with managing al-Qaeda’s media wing, the al-Sahab. He too fled to Iran after 9/11, and the FBI believes that he travels between Iran and Pakistan. A US designated terrorist, al-Maghribi carries a bounty of $7 million.
According to the independent think tank the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT), al-Maghribi’s family relationship is a factor similar to the one that at one point in time made Osama’s son, Hamza bin Laden, a powerful emerging leader in the al-Qaeda. The US announced in 2019 that Hamza had been killed, but no details were given.
YEZID MEBAREK: The Algeria-born emir of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) rose in prominence after his predecessor, Abdelmalek Droukdel, was killed by French forces in Mali in 2020. According to the US, Mebrak plays a key role in al-Qaeda’s global management. The AQIM has been an important and active affiliate of al-Qaeda, and Droukdel had served on the outfit’s leadership team under al-Zawahiri before his death.
Mebarek (53), also known as Abu Ubaydah Yusuf al-Anabi, was earlier in charge of AQIM’s media operations. He was also previously the leader of AQIM’s Council of Notables, and served on its Shura council. The US has announced a reward of $7 million for information leading to his capture.
AHMED DIRIYE: The leader of al-Shabaab in Somalia, Ahmed Diriye — also known as Ahmed Umar and Abu Ubaidah — took the reins of the terror outfit in 2014 after its previous leader was killed in a US air strike. He, according to the US, shares his predecessor’s “vision for al-Shabaab’s terrorist attacks in Somalia as an element of al-Qaida’s greater global aspirations”.
What is the process to pick the next al-Qaeda emir?
Al-Qaeda’s next permanent emir will be picked by its Shura or governing council. The Shura council consists of the terror outfit’s core members. On important matters, Shura members are known to be in touch with affiliate branches of al-Qaeda through the outfit’s information committees.
In the last and the only succession drill that played out in 2011 after Osama bin Laden’s death, al-Zawahiri was required to get “bayat” or pledges of allegiance from members of the Shura. These pledges had rolled in under the interim leadership of Saif al-Adel.
“Al-Zawahiri did not collect those pledges himself; to finish the job, the organization needed someone whose credentials and loyalty were unimpeachable… The Egyptian former commando named Saif al-Adel… Within six weeks, he had secured pledges of baya from all but one of the members of al-Qaida’s governing Shura council,” Ali Soufan has written.
How long will this process take, and how will the world get to know?
The time al-Qaeda will take to appoint its next chief is anybody’s guess. There was a gap of around six weeks between bin Laden’s death on May 2, 2011 and the formal announcement of al-Zawahiri’s name as the next emir, which happened on June 16, 2011.
The delay in the announcement was attributed to divisions within the group in approving al-Zawahiri’s appointment. In the end, Saif al-Adel’s personal secretary Harun Fazul was the only one who did not give ‘bayat’ to al-Zawahiri, and he wound up dead around the same time, Soufan wrote in his article.
Later, to confirm the appointment, al-Qaeda issued an official statement titled “Statement Regarding the Succession in the Leadership of Qaida’t al-Jihad”. It said: “The General Command for Qaida’t al-Jihad Group — after finishing the discussion — announces the undertaking of responsibility of Amir of the group by Shaykh Dr Abu Muhammad Ayman al-Zawahiri.”
How important is this leadership change for al-Qaeda?
The leadership change comes at a crucial juncture for both al-Qaeda and the security agencies working to neutralise it.
The UN experts’ report says: “The international context is favorable to Al Qaeda, which intends to be recognized again as the leader of global jihad… Al Qaeda propaganda is now better developed to compete with ISIL as the key actor in inspiring the international threat environment, and it may ultimately become a greater source of directed threat.”
These favourable conditions include a weakened ISIS, which is no longer the recruiting and fundraising force it was a few years back, and the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan. And yet, the ask of operating a global terror outfit that keeps affliates in line and plots high-impact attacks while dodging a more allied counter-terror apparatus would make any supposed turnaround tougher for whoever steps into al-Zawahiri’s shoes.