Al-Qaeda’s Leaders Are Dying, But a Greater Challenge Looms

A string of top-level al-Qaeda leaders have been killed this year in U.S. counterterrorism operations extending from Afghanistan to Iran and Syria. The frequency of the strikes, together with the seniority of those lost, has dealt a crippling blow to the old guard responsible for founding al-Qaeda back in the 1980s. After nearly 20 years of relentless counterterrorism pressure following the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda’s central leadership has grown older, more distant and disconnected, and, it seems, increasingly vulnerable.

Most prominently, Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah (better known as Abu Mohammed al-Masri), was reportedly killed in August by a team of elite Israeli assassins acting on U.S. intelligence in the Iranian capital of Tehran. The targeting of al-Masri, the most likely successor to overall leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, was one of the most significant operational successes against al-Qaeda since Osama Bin Laden’s death in Abbottabad, Pakistan in May 2011. That it took place in Iran, where he had been present since 2003 (first in prison and strict house arrest, then from 2015 living freely in Iranian territory), was additionally significant, given the widespread assumption that senior al-Qaeda figures in Iran were virtually invulnerable to foreign threats. Beyond the U.S.-Israeli operation, al-Qaeda has also recently lost its media chief, Hossam Abdul Raouf, in Afghanistan, and Khaled al-Aruri (Abu al-Qassam al-Urduni) and Sari Shihab (Abu Khallad al-Mohandis) in Syria, among many others.

How and why now?

This flurry of losses raises the question of how and why now. First of all, the U.S. appears to have developed extremely potent lines of human and signals intelligence in northwestern Syria, given the frequency with which drone strikes run jointly by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) have taken out prominent al-Qaeda operatives there, including Aruri and Shihab. Effective intelligence in Idlib is nothing new for the U.S., having been used effectively to neutralize the so-called Khorasan Group between 2014 and 2015, and additional high-level targets like Rifai Taha in April 2016 and then al-Qaeda deputy leader Abu al-Khayr al-Masri in February 2017. Intriguingly, Taha’s death in a drone strike may in fact have been a case of accidental—or coincidental—targeting, as he was killed after unexpectedly swapping vehicles and driving a car belonging to the presumed target, Ahmed Salameh Mabrouk (Abu Faraj al-Masri).

Beyond extraordinary intelligence penetration, it also appears feasible that some if not all of this year’s high-level U.S. strikes against al-Qaeda were linked. Notwithstanding the likelihood of linkages in the spate of strikes in Syria, the killing of al-Qaeda media chief Hossam Abdul Raouf in Afghanistan in October could be a central puzzle piece. Public and leaked al-Qaeda communications, and even more so a very public spat between al-Qaeda’s former affiliate in Syria and al-Qaeda loyalists in 2017, revealed the centrality of al-Qaeda’s media network to facilitating transnational communications between affiliates and the central leadership. It is highly likely that Abdul Raouf and his associates maintained open and regular channels to key al-Qaeda operatives worldwide. According to a well-placed intelligence source, Abdul Raouf’s deputy was captured and a large quantity of documents and data seized—which could easily reveal a plethora of intelligence leads for future strikes.

This disruption of the media network could explain rumors that have been swirling in al-Qaeda circles in recent weeks that Zawahiri is dead—rumors based in large part on claims that al-Qaeda’s present-day Syrian affiliate, Tanzim Hurras al-Din, has lost contact with him for roughly two months, after having enjoyed steady contact with him for at least two years. For now, no evidence exists to substantiate rumors of Zawahiri’s death. What appears more likely is that his already poor health has put him temporarily out of action, or that the deaths of Abu Mohammed al-Masri and Hossam Abdul Raouf have forced him into lockdown. If al-Qaeda’s most prized channels of communication—both human couriers and a variety of innovative online methods—were compromised, as one would assume they would be following such high-level losses, one would expect surviving leaders to go dark for some time. It is also possible, given his apparent basing in eastern Afghanistan, that Zawahiri has been forced to go off-grid by the Taliban amid intensifying scrutiny over the U.S.-Taliban agreement and the intra-Afghan peace talks. Though constraining him in this way would unquestionably throw a spanner into the Taliban-al-Qaeda relationship, it would be a strategically smart move by the Taliban—and one that gives the  impression of a Zawahiri crisis.

Succession crisis

Assuming Zawahiri is still alive, he is now faced with an existential succession crisis. For years, al-Qaeda maintained a three-man council of deputies, but two of those—Abu Mohammed al-Masri and Abu al-Khayr al-Masri—are now dead. Only one survives: Mohammed Salah ad Din Zeidan (Sayf al-Adel), who remains based in Iran, more or less living freely but prohibited from leaving Iranian territory. Were Zawahiri gone, it is virtually impossible to imagine any Iran-based leader, even one with the veteran clout of Sayf al-Adel, being capable of exerting any meaningful influence over widely dispersed affiliates deeply distrustful of Iran and its possible influence over leaders still assumed to be in some form of captivity. In the process of breaking ties with al-Qaeda, the senior leaders of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) claimed to be highly suspicious of any instructions coming from Iran-based leaders, and on these grounds they ultimately refused to abide by them. Were that dynamic to go global, al-Qaeda could swiftly fall apart.

Worse still for al-Qaeda, Iran is highly unlikely to remove its travel restrictions on Sayf al-Adel—his presence on Iranian soil equates to strategically significant leverage, not just on al-Qaeda itself, but also potentially on the U.S. If the incoming Biden administration seeks to resume some form of negotiations with Iran, as is assumed, the fate of the highest-known leader after Zawahiri would represent a valuable card on the table.

For the sake of al-Qaeda’s future, Zawahiri needs to foster a new generation of leaders capable of assuming the mantle of leadership, but for now it is unclear who they might be—or where.

The principal base of operations for the central leadership has long been South Asia, and any shift away from there appears unlikely in the near future. In this context, deciphering the dynamic between al-Qaeda core and the Taliban, and determining the extent to which the U.S. will retain effective intelligence and counterterrorism capabilities in Afghanistan amid troop drawdowns, have become more crucial than ever. Given al-Qaeda’s bay’a to Taliban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada, it is virtually impossible to envision the relationship turning hostile, as the Trump administration has done its best to suggest it could. But if ties become more convoluted, and if the Taliban’s factionalism becomes more pronounced on this and similar issues, the prospect of shifting—or even distributing—the core leadership abroad may rise.

Decentralization and localization

Thanks in large part to sustained U.S. counterterrorism successes against al-Qaeda leaders over the past nearly two decades, al-Qaeda has proceeded—willingly or unwillingly—down a steady path of decentralization. Whereas the al-Qaeda responsible for 9/11 was a rigidly structured and tightly controlled organization, the al-Qaeda of today could more accurately be described as a loosely networked movement, comprising likeminded but regionally distinct groups, each pursuing increasingly local agendas. While Zawahiri and the Shura that he represents clearly still exert a powerful aura and form a focal point for the cause, the actual practical value that they represent in terms of controlling and directing appears to be minimal at best.

Bin Laden presided over the start of this decentralization, but his charisma and “star status” ensured a degree of authority when it came to asserting strategic control over affiliate activities. The spread of Internet access and the rapidity of developments and information dissemination; the explosion of instability that followed the “Arab Spring”; continued U.S. counterterrorism pressure; and Zawahiri’s deathly boring character have all contributed to an exponential progression in al-Qaeda’s decentralization.

Nowhere have the consequences of this been more clear than in Syria, where the dilemmas and challenges presented by an extraordinarily complex and highly fluid operating environment saw al-Qaeda’s once most powerful affiliate defect. It took a year for that defection to take full form, and attempts by Zawahiri in Af-Pak and both Sayf al-Adel and Abu Mohammed al-Masri in Iran to stop it revealed the extent to which distance and communications delays had crippled prospects of central control. Most importantly, these leaders of the old guard were deemed insufficiently familiar with the every-day operational realities in Syria, such that their views meant little to the decisionmakers on the ground.

But evidence of al-Qaeda’s likely irreversible decentralization has been evident everywhere, with affiliates dedicating themselves to locally-focused agendas that run almost entirely against the grain of Zawahiri’s strategic commands. Though HTS’s “pragmatic” approach to the jihad continues to draw a great deal of criticism within al-Qaeda circles, the fact that al-Qaeda affiliates are treading paths once trodden by HTS’s predecessor Jabhat al-Nusra is inescapable. From forming alliances with irreligious bodies; mediating local communal conflicts; espousing non-violent tactics for political gain; seeking to engage nation-state governments; and establishing long-term semi-legitimate business investments, these affiliates are not at all being guided by the likes of Zawahiri.

The current trajectory of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), led by Iyad Ag Ghaly, a former Malian diplomat known as “the strategist,” is especially emblematic of this trend. Its guiding ideology differs little from that of al-Qaeda’s, but the methods used to expand its influence have evolved dramatically when compared to the earlier days of Ansar al-Din-al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb cooperation. In parts of the Sahel, particularly in northern Mali, JNIM has arguably molded itself into a more accepted, more credible actor, trusted by non-ideological community groups to mediate conflict more than the central government. In a similar vein, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), in embracing tribal alliances and focusing on hostilities with the Houthis and ISIS, has been accused of not just failing to act on its hostility towards Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates but even negotiating mutually suitable arrangements with them.

Of course, al-Qaeda’s decentralization has also resulted in individual affiliates turning to more extreme agendas, as when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) chose a more extreme path than Bin Laden desired. Similarly, al-Shabab in Somalia has been critiqued internally in the past for its excessive brutality. Yet similar examples do not appear to exist today. Rather, the trend appears to be focused on growing sustainable local and/or regional roots, socio-politically out-competing rivals, and slowly and methodically transforming society to fit Salafi-jihadist ideals in hopes of one day collectively forming an Islamic state.

The coming challenge

Therefore, while we should all be celebrating the string of recent counterterrorism successes against al-Qaeda’s senior leadership, we should be doing so while simultaneously shifting our attention to the challenge of tomorrow: deeply rooted, locally-oriented jihadist groups pursuing more sustainable agendas. While this localism trend may well reduce the prospect of 9/11-style plotting—at least temporarily—it is not a sign of counterterrorism success. Rather, it is a sign of terrorism’s adaptation, and the embrace of strategies that promise equally significant instability but require far more complex and long-term countermeasures, for which we are frankly ill equipped. Worryingly, ISIS appears to be learning this lesson too.

The challenge on the horizon has little of anything to do with combating extremist ideologies, and much more to do with tackling the problems of ungoverned spaces, failed and corrupt governance, economic strife, underdevelopment, and long-standing hyper-local conflicts – all of which provide fuel for jihadists displaying more flexibility and political intelligence than ever before. To put our hands up and declare victory would be to miss the coming challenge altogether.

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Charles Lister

Charles Lister is a senior fellow and the Director of the Syria and Countering Terrorism and Extremism programs at the Middle East Institute. His work focuses primarily on the conflict in Syria, and on the threats and challenges posed by al-Qaeda and ISIS across the Middle East region. Prior to joining MEI, Lister was a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Qatar and a Senior Consultant to the multinationally-backed Syria Track II Dialogue Initiative, where he managed nearly three years of intensive face-to-face engagement with the leaderships of over 100 Syrian armed opposition groups. Lister’s critically-acclaimed book, The Syrian Jihad, was published in 2016. He has also published The Islamic State: A Brief Introduction (2015) and Winning the Battle, Losing the War (2019), and he is working on a fourth book, commissioned by Oxford University Press, focused on Syria.

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