Was Ayman al-Zawahiri Really a Success Story?

At Akhbar al Aan, a news outlet with a keen interest in covering the developments in the Salafi-jihadi world, every year around the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks we strive to tell compelling stories about where Al Qaeda (AQ) stands and where it may go next. Our audience includes young men on the cusp of deciding what to do with their lives. We know some of them may have lost hope of finding a fulfilling life and might be attracted to the call of extremist organizations like AQ. That’s why we care about informing our audience with reliable facts and insightful analyses of the reality of violent extremism. 

In April, when we reviewed the potential of various story possibilities on AQ, Ayman al-Zawahiri did not even make it to our shortlist of top AQ personalities to storify. Our team and the extremism experts who regularly contribute to our output have agreed that the most compelling stories could be about the AQ senior leaders living under controlled circumstances in Iran. They were operationally active, their relationship with Iran had big question marks, and, significantly, we found that AQ supporters on social media appeared to be uninformed about them. 

Our decision not to invest in Zawahiri stories was based on several factors, including his increasing detachment from the realities on the ground. We kept analyzing his numerous speeches only to wonder why he was not addressing the key issues that mattered to AQ members and affiliates. After the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in August 2021, Zawahiri’s messages seemed to lack any substance of practical importance. 

Even Zawahiri-related issues were best addressed to others. Thus, we pressed Taliban representatives on the subject of Zawahiri’s bay‘a (oath of allegiance) to the Taliban leader. Spokesman Suhail Shaheen answered us with a clear “There is no bay‘a,” seemingly clinching Zawahiri’s growing irrelevance. All of Zawahiri’s efforts to portray the Taliban emir as his supreme leader were thus publicly undermined.

We closely monitored Zawahiri’s productions, but focusing on the AQ Tehran group’s story was much more rewarding. Unlike Zawahiri’s largely void lectures, we found compelling insights in the writings of Mustafa Hamid, the ideological ally and father-in-law of Saif al-Adl, the heir apparent to Zawahiri. We found clues that led us to argue that the AQ remnants in Iran must be suffering from “Tehran Syndrome,” the title of our upcoming documentary series. 

Was Zawahiri aware of how the senior leaders in Tehran were diverging from the operations and the ideology of Zawahiri’s AQ? 

In his last messages, Zawahiri was showing signs of ideological flexibility, to the extent that some of us felt he was trying to embrace the Muslim Brotherhood, something unthinkable until recently. In contrast, Mustafa Hamid offered a different worldview for Salafi-jihadis, proposing to align with Iran. That, taken together with Saif al Adl’s influence on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the latter’s murky dealings with pro-Iran militias, was too much to be a coincidence. 

The Taliban’s return as the rulers of Afghanistan also undercut Zawahiri while improving the standing of Mustafa Hamid. Unlike Zawahiri, Hamid maintained excellent links with the Taliban without being a direct liability.

Zawahiri had his protectors in the intensely fragmented Taliban system. However, in essence, the Taliban’s victory represented a counterexample to the AQ model, a case of what could be possible for locally focused jihadis if only they abandoned AQ’s failed global jihad. In Syria, another locally focused jihadi group under Abu Muhammad al-Jolani survived by distancing itself from global jihad. Jolani appeared to have saved his neck while the remnants of AQ were being hunted in airstrikes.

That was the overall context when the news of Zawahiri’s death in Kabul came, and the media scene was flooded with analyses and opinions on his career and leadership.

What kind of a leader had he been, and what did he demonstrably achieve before meeting his end in Kabul? 

I’m befuddled by some of the research and academic-oriented perspectives that regard Zawahiri as a successful leader. 

For starters, he was a divisive and vengeful character. To really feel it, take a good look at the 1982 video showing his Sayyid Qutb-inspired angry outburst behind bars in Egypt. That was the man he was. 

Under Bin Laden, Zawahiri undermined internal rivals to the organization’s detriment. His leadership style evolved but did not fundamentally change over the years. 

In “What Leadership Type will Succeed Al-Qaeda’s al-Zawahiri?” Tricia Bacon and Elizabeth Grimm wrote last month: 

While at the helm of al-Qaeda, al-Zawahiri represents a clear-cut caretaker of bin Laden’s legacy. He has had missteps as a leader tha[t] bin Laden was unlikely to make—for example, his failure to prevent the split with the Islamic State—but he has continued the how and the why established by bin Laden.

Based on his actions, Zawahiri was not a visionary or a fixer. He wasn’t a great caretaker either, having done little more than shepherd his organization’s continuous decline toward irrelevance and eventual demise. Given how his life ended, perhaps he fit the profile of a “figurehead” better than anything else. 

Isn’t that the net balance of Zawahiri’s tenure as the leader of AQ? His most memorable achievement will be to have overseen the vanishing of AQ while not missing opportunities to harm the foundations of the jihadi camp. Credit where credit is due: Zawahiri’s leadership had a critical part to play in the emergence of ISIS from the womb of AQ. 

ISIS is not just the archenemy of AQ, but it is also the illegitimate child of it. From the perspective of the young men who might be attracted to extremist causes, all the violence ISIS unleashed on the world must be counted toward Zawahiri’s and AQ’s failures column as well, given the organization’s stated goal of making jihadism less bloody. 

Zawahiri is said to have grown the affiliate network of AQ. In the big picture, he lost perhaps the most crucial affiliate in Syria as Jolani broke away from AQ without abandoning its ideology. Then Jolani embarked on a campaign of arresting and eliminating the AQ remnants in Syria. 

Zawahiri allowed, or at least could not stop, AQAP from straying out of his command and practically joining the side of pro-Iran forces in Yemen. All because he declined or was unable to arbitrate between squabbling seniors. What is left of the responsibilities of a leader if he shrinks from such moments?

The rupture between AQ central and AQAP resulted in significant defections, making it easier for the pro-Iran clique to clean up the leadership and the rank-and-file so the remnants could align with the Houthis increasingly more brazenly. 

Some affiliates did expand during Zawahiri’s time. That’s not to say Zawahiri deserves credit for it. Many groups adopted or simply continued to use the AQ brand for convenience rather than out of any organic link they had with or benefit they drew from AQ. 

ISIS’s extreme brutality is a top reason why many Salafi-jihadi groups wanted to emphasize alignment with AQ’s ideology, a ploy for acceptability among potential recruits, funders, and supporters. They used the AQ brand as a descriptive reference rather than out of genuine attachment or belonging. That did not require or show any success on the part of Zawahiri.

While Zawahiri kept producing ideological videos, many affiliates realized he was out of touch with the realities on the ground, leading them to pursue locally focused agendas. Who is left as “real” AQ other than Ahmed Diriye in Somalia and a handful of Hurras al-Din in Syria? How long before they also discover that localizing their struggles might save them and their organizations for another day? 

We can go on and on. To focus on the fundamentals, we must ask: Isn’t it a historic blow in itself that Zawahiri was found and killed in Kabul? He sought refuge under the Taliban’s wings and pledged them bay‘a, which the Taliban kept denying it had acknowledged. Would Zawahiri himself consider this a success? 

The implications of the way he died are disastrous for AQ. While protected by the Haqqanis, Zawahiri was despised by many other Taliban leaders. 

Anba’ Jasim, a source who broke the Abu Muhammad Al-Masri killing in Tehran in August 2020, recently cited jihadi sources saying Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul “was a Haqqani top secret project.”

Zawahiri’s death in a high-security district of Kabul is costly for the Taliban for many reasons. For months, they have allowed Zawahiri to produce and disseminate threats and incitement to violence from the soil of Afghanistan, directly violating the Doha accords.

Those arguing that this activity did not violate the accords risk missing the point. Irrespective of the semantics and technicalities, Zawahiri’s activities in Kabul were detrimental to the interests of the Taliban movement, its government, and the Afghan people.

What was the role of the senior Taliban leadership, apart from the Haqqanis, in Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul? They either approved it, or they didn’t know. Both possibilities make Taliban senior leadership look terrible. They cannot but take harsh measures against those involved internally and on the AQ side.

What happened makes the Taliban emirate’s need and desire to get international recognition and aid much more complicated than before. That will anger the Taliban government and exacerbate strife within the broader movement. In Afghanistan’s complex ethnic, tribal, and regional fabric of a thousand splendid patches, imagine the tensions that must now be brewing within the Taliban. 

This comes at a time when the Taliban is finding out what a huge responsibility and burden it is to govern and what heartbreakingly poor shape the country is in. Seeing their top priorities ruined by a bunch of irresponsible adventurers will make the Taliban furious.

For the sake of one man, AQ has shown it don’t care about the Taliban or the Afghan people. All the talk of how AQ members living in Afghanistan were heeding the Taliban’s conditions and authority has been exposed as futility. The Taliban will now have to look at every AQ member with distrust.

Zawahiri thus left the scene with explosive tension between AQ and the Taliban. In the most likely scenario, the Taliban will now be extremely tough with AQ remnants, giving them little choice between total obedience and expulsion.

In his last breath, Zawahiri destroyed AQ’s primary and vital safe haven irreversibly. It’s befitting of a leader known for prioritizing the narrow interests of his racist clique.

Under Taliban pressure, it won’t be surprising to see some AQ remnants joining Islamic State Khurasan Province (ISKP), which has become a magnet for extremists who have fallen out with the Taliban. The Taliban will now have to allocate meager resources to rein in AQ militants more closely.

Finally, isn’t the ultimate measure of success for a leader what kind of organization he leaves behind? Some say jokingly that Zawahiri reduced AQ to nothing but a boring podcast. That has a grain of truth to it.

Zawahiri leaves behind an organization with no clear succession plan. Some of the most likely candidates are in Iran, seemingly attracted to the worldview of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). They will have serious legitimacy issues as they will be seen as either co-opted by or willing collaborators of the Iranians.

AQ fanboys quickly moved from denial of Zawahiri’s death to celebrating his “martyrdom.” If they opened their eyes and hearts, they might see a different reality: Ayman al Zawahiri was not in Kabul seeking a glorious end. On the contrary, he was there looking out for the interests of himself and his family, just as he had always done. He certainly did not rush headlong toward martyrdom. 

In 1981, Zawahiri’s comrades killed Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, a hero of peace. That’s the root Zawahiri stems from, and after more than 40 years, his true legacy is about stealing hope from and wasting the energies of several generations of young Muslims, and harming countless other innocents.

None of this looks like success to me—or “a good sealing,” for that matter. 

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M. Nureddin

M. Nureddin is the Managing Editor of Akhbar al Aan.

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