The death of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a U.S. airstrike is likely to test the terror group’s resolve and coherence – and possibly strain long-crafted succession plans – just as it was seemingly positioned to be the world’s preeminent jihadist threat.
Recent intelligence assessments had warned al-Qaida appeared to be benefiting from a period of relative stability within its leadership and that the group was taking advantage of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, with al-Qaida leadership communicating more freely than in the past.
"The international context is favorable to al-Qaida,” a United Nations report said last month, further warning al-Qaida “may ultimately become a greater source of directed threat” than its rival, Islamic State.
Only some former counterterrorism officials and analysts warn that although al-Qaida also used its new-found freedom in Afghanistan to solidify its hierarchy and line of succession, there are serious questions about how-well those plans can be put in motion, given geographical concerns and the growing influence of the terror group’s African affiliates.
“This is challenging for al-Qaida,” a former Western counterterrorism official told VOA, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss recent intelligence assessments.
In particular, the official cited concerns echoed by a number of intelligence agencies worldwide about the status of Zawahiri’s longtime heir apparent, Saif al-Adel.
Al-Qaida and Iran
“He’s in Iran ... do the Iranians let him leave?” the former official asked. “It’s sort of tough to be the leader of al-Qaida while stuck in a gilded cage.”
Al-Qaida’s number three, Abd al-Rahman al-Maghrebi, the terror group’s general manager and the head of its media operations, is also believed to be in Iran, along with several lower-ranking al-Qaida officials.
And it is not just al-Adel and al-Maghrebi.
The proliferation of al-Qaida officials in Tehran once prompted former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to accuse Iran of becoming al-Qaida’s new operational headquarters.
Other U.S. intelligence and diplomatic officials, however, have been more cautious in their assessments, describing the relationship between Tehran and al-Qaida as one of convenience, and often transactional in nature.
In any case, some analysts see the connection to Iran as a problem.
“It does create dilemmas,” said Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who specializes in jihadism. “[There are] questions of legitimacy or of Iranian influence.”
Rise of African affiliates
So too, there are potential challenges should al-Qaida turn to those next in line to replace Zawahiri: Yazid Mebrak with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Ahmed Diriye with al-Qaida's Somali affiliate al-Shabab.
“That would be also unprecedented where the senior leadership would move from the historical sanctuary of the Afghanistan-Pakistan region to different parts of Africa,” Zelin told VOA.
“Many of those groups, while paying lip service to sort of the global fight, have historically mainly focused on their local insurgencies or regional conflicts than on anything related to the West,” he said.
Yet despite a long-standing local or regional focus, the African affiliates have been growing in power and influence.
Over the last couple of years, intelligence shared by U.N. member states warned that AQIM had becomes a logistics hub for al-Qaida affiliates in Mali while also finding ways to supply, and possibly influence, other militant groups.
Al-Shabab’s rise has been even more pronounced, with one U.N. member state warning that it has morphed from affiliate to benefactor, providing al-Qaida’s core leadership with financial support.
A new caliphate?
At the same time, U.S. military and intelligence officials warn al-Qaida’s Somali affiliate is growing more ambitious, with a growing appetite for territory and for taking on Western targets.
“I think it is likely that Africa will be the home of the next emirate-style experiment on al-Qaida's part … based on the prevalence of strong militant movements in Africa along with weak states and frustrated populations that are open to a range of alternatives,” Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counterterrorism analyst and CEO of the threat analysis firm Valens Global, recently told VOA.
Still, Gartenstein-Ross, speaking prior to the death of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, said a stronger, more prominent African affiliate would not have to be home to al-Qaida’s core leadership.
“Al-Qaida's system of guidance is not a traditional command and control system,” he said. “Its ideal tends to be centralization of strategy with decentralization of the action.”
Late Monday, a senior U.S. administration official said Zawahiri’s death deals al-Qaida “a significant blow … and will degrade the group's ability to operate including against the U.S. homeland.”
But some analysts and former officials are wary.
“The loss of Zawahiri is not the end of al-Qaida,” Katherine Zimmerman, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told VOA via text.
“As uninspiring as his diatribes were to many, he successfully led the organization beyond the death of its founder, Osama bin Laden, and the challenge from the Islamic State,” she said. “He and senior al-Qaida leaders have already planned for his death, and many capable individuals are ready to take the lead.”
Other analysts argue that al-Qaida, while decentralized and reliant on affiliates, is still stronger now than ever before.
There are those, though, who disagree.
“There is a case against him which says he wasn't a very inspiring leader, he wasn't a very dynamic leader,” the former Western counterterrorism official told VOA, sounding a note of caution.
“If you subscribe to the theory that Zawahiri was not an effective leader, then you have the possibility of a more inspiring leader taking over," the official said.