Al-Zawahiri will never become as charismatic and authoritative as Usama bin Laden, but less can do in times of great ordeal for al-Qaida as the Islamic State briefly overtook its position as the foremost Jihadi movement. Since 2015 Al-Zawahiri has proven to be a commanding and well-respected leader after a period when even his own within al-Qaida started to doubt and criticize him. Bin Laden himself was not always immune to criticism, but the critique of al-Zawahiri was nonetheless critical for the aging leader, who had been waiting for his chance to lead the movement for more than a decade. Some of this criticism, however, is misplaced or no longer applies.
Some, like the Jordanian scholar Hassan Abu Hanieh, have argued that al-Zawahiri does not control his affiliates as closely as al-Qaida Central used to. Perhaps this is true, but then again al-Qaida affiliates have always had quite some freedom of manoeuvre, thus fitting well with the original idea of being a vanguard rather than an actual organization. We know from public propaganda that differential-Qaida’s affiliates still see Zawahiri as the commanding authority. Affiliates in Yemen, Somalia and northern Africa continue to sing Zawahiri’s praises. Most recently the newly established Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimeen, or the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, composed of the Malian groups Ansar al-Deen and Masina Liberation Front in addition to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb’s Saharan emirate, stayed loyal to Zawahiri. In the speech announcing the merger, its leader Iyad ag Ghaly said “On this blessed time we pledge allegiance to our honourable emirs and sheikhs Abu Mus’ab abd al Wadud (AQIM emir) and our wise sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri”.
Internal al-Qaeda correspondence between senior members also suggests that al-Zawahiri is still a respected leader. When the leader of Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia confided to Zawahiri that he might join the Islamic State and reform it from within, he left the decision up to al-Zawahiri and other respected jihadist scholars (Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filastini). Similar respect for the Zawahiri is evident in a letter sent by the now late senior operative in Syria Muhsin al-Fadhli to Nasser al-Wuhayshi. Perhaps the best example, however, is when the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra (now Hayat Tahrir al-Sham), Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani in an interview broadcasted by Al Jazeera on 27 May 2015, explained that he had received orders from the al-Qaida leadership not to target the West and focus on the Syrian arena. Although Jawlani’s groups declared independence from al-Qaida, it is obvious that he is still remains in the fold of Zawahiri.
Further cementing Zawahiri’s position as number one in the hierarchy is the continuous reverence and praise he receives from senior ideologues affiliated with al-Qaida, who are extremely influential on the broader Jihadi masses. This was confirmed in a recent interview I conducted with Abu Qatada al-Filastini who confirmed Zawahiri is the sheikh to follow. In another interview with a student of Abu Qatada, I was told that Abu Qatada has stated that “if all people on earth go in one direction and Ayman al-Zawahiri goes in the other direction, I will follow the sheikh”.
Certainly, the initial passivity from al-Zawahiri in the immediate aftermath of the rise of the Islamic State was not a conscious move, but a sign of desperation as the al-Qaida leader did not know what to do. Along the way, however, he figured it out and his answer was to follow the strategic vision of a population-centric focus that was adopted by al-Qaida already before the conflict with the Islamic State started (and was mentioned as early as 2001 by al-Zawahiri himself). To follow the brutally violent, but nonetheless successful, approach of al-Baghdadi and his cadres was not the solution. This was a smart decision by al-Zawahiri as he now, a few years down the road, commands an al-Qaida that has probably never been stronger than it currently is.