The Loneliness of a Global Jihadist: Al-Qa’ida Under al-Zawahiri

Unrelenting ideologue: Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of Al-Qa'ida, who was killed in a counterterrorism operation by the CIA in Kabul on 31 July 2022. Image: Abaca Press / Alamy

The death of Al-Qa’ida’s Emir leaves his successor facing difficult questions about the organisation’s future.

The killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan was not startling news per se, as the leadership of Al-Qa’ida (AQ) has previously been wiped out several times over. But the location is striking. It is surprising that al-Zawahiri took the risk of settling in Kabul, where a variety of intelligence agencies from the region and beyond are active and indiscrete eyes abound. Indeed, the presence of foreigners in the area – likely jihadists – had been noticed, even if how the US specifically zoomed in on al-Zawahiri himself is far from fully understood. Drones have been overflying Afghanistan – including Kabul – for months, but the risk was seemingly not strong enough to keep al-Zawahiri away from the city. He might, of course, have had very good reasons for taking the risk – we know he was in poor health, and the mountains along the eastern border with Pakistan do not offer much in terms of medical assistance.

Whatever the rationale, his death exposes serious tensions and debates within AQ as a militant group and wider movement, issues that will persist long after the nomination of his successor.

A Mixed Record

In terms of legacy, the impact of al-Zawahiri’s leadership is contested, particularly given his tenure coincided with the meteoric rise (and slow decline) of Islamic State. Despite a well-documented lack of charisma, he offered ‘strategic direction’: expanding the number of affiliates tied to AQ’s network and extending – or at least preserving – the resonance of an otherwise waning brand. Increasingly reliant on a polycentric franchise system – one only reluctantly adopted by Osama Bin Laden – al-Zawahiri opted for resilience in breadth: opening branches on the Indian subcontinent; formalising links to Al-Shabaab in Somalia; and offering money, logistical support and training to a ‘potpourri’ of local groups, from West Africa to Yemen. Reflecting the durability of this model, Islamic State itself quicky imitated the process, cultivating offshoots in Nigeria, Somalia, the Sahel, Sinai, Philippines and latterly Mozambique, even as the territorial integrity of its Levantine Caliphate collapsed.

However, devolution is a challenge for any executive, especially one with patchy reach and resources. Accordingly, sources within AQ have long reported dissent among the rank and file. In Afghanistan, for example, AQ leader Faruq al-Qahtani disobeyed orders and established friendly relations with the newly arrived Islamic State in Khorasan. Similarly, al-Zawahiri eventually lost AQ’s footing in Syria when rifts with the leadership of Al-Nusra – a local affiliate looking to attract a ‘broader audience’ – eventually precipitated a dramatic split, with the Emir complaining ‘loudly and publicly…of betrayal’.

The impact of al-Zawahiri’s leadership is contested, particularly given his tenure coincided with the meteoric rise (and slow decline) of Islamic State

Where allegiances remained robust, disparities in funding and power also created asymmetries between Al-Qa’ida Core (AQC) and erstwhile subsidiaries like Al-Shabaab. Replete with tax collectors and a sprawling bureaucratic infrastructure, Somali jihadists have become financially self-sufficient, leaving al-Zawahiri little clout or relevance in day-to-day operations. As Crisis Group acknowledges, ‘Shabaab’s revenue streams, local recruitment efforts and arms procurements do not involve al Qa’ida’. Additionally, many of the so-called Afghan Somalis and remnants of AQ’s East Africa cell are dead, leaving the current crop in Al-Shabaab’s shura with little direct connection to their parent outfit in South Asia. Yes, bayat – the oath of allegiance to AQ – was reaffirmed by Ahmed Diriye, nascent support for Islamic State was quickly suppressed, and the group maintains operational ties with Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but any link with AQC itself was by that point largely discursive, limited to recycling or mimicking official AQ narratives. Even here, forthcoming research by RUSI suggests a significant proportion of messaging may be devoted to domestic grievances rather than the internationalist tropes associated with Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri.

This was perhaps to be expected when AQC ‘mostly produces variants of the same tired old content it has been putting out since 2001’, prompting partners to find their own ways of competing with ‘tech-savvy’ outputs from the likes of Islamic State. But it also speaks to a shift in the logic and orientation of the wider jihadist ecosystem, where affiliates have assumed a progressively ‘local flavour’.

Competing Priorities

From the outset, it should be said that drawing a straightforward binary between international and local is far too reductive. While policymakers often cast violent extremism as parasitic, co-opting or reshaping existing conflicts, the reality involves consuming, challenging and reimagining transnational ideas through a prism of specific settings, social networks, and experiences. Transcendental aspirations pushed by AQ and its ideologues are therefore enmeshed within, and conditioned by, a web of cultural norms, politics and socioeconomic structures wherever they find traction, contributing to heterogenous patterns of interpretation and mobilisation. Rather than the ‘mechanical application of [extremist] doctrine’, this manifests in a mutual, ongoing process of acculturation and transformation. Consequently, the interplay and tension between concurrent strands of identity and interest – described in the case of Al-Shabaab as a ‘triple helix’ of ethnic, regional and global markers – is an enduring dynamic within each franchise, as demonstrated by the salience of clan solidarities among Al-Shabaab militiamen despite the international pretensions evident in the group’s propaganda.

Against this backdrop, the focus of affiliates has nevertheless slowly re-territorialised over time, practically if not rhetorically. Attacks on Western targets are still conducted, whether directly or indirectly – such as the AQAP-inspired incident at a US naval base in Florida (2019) – but any fixation on the ‘Far Enemy’ à la Bin Laden or al-Zawahiri has long since lapsed. As-Sahab, AQ’s media wing, may continue to frame operations by Somali militants as part of a ‘global campaign’, for instance, but the purpose usually aligns far more with ‘local objectives’. Likewise, Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb ‘largely ignored…entreaties to attack Americans’, preferring to focus on regional security forces.

Ironically, this shift could be partially attributed to AQ offshoots gaining ground and (in some cases) becoming preoccupied with the immediate concerns of governing or exploiting territorial control. As the most successful affiliate in this respect, Al-Shabaab established civic institutions and basic service provision over several years, embedding itself in the social and political fabric of host communities. Coercion and zealotry are still pronounced, but so too are (shades of) pragmatism, contextual sensitivity, and clannism. Al-Zawahiri himself pushed for ‘gentler’ modes of administration compared to those displayed by Islamic State, as did AQAP, advising its counterpart in the Maghreb to ‘take a gradual approach’. Packaged as a temporary tactic, the disposition of certain groups nevertheless seemed to change instead – none more so than Al-Nusra’s successor, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, which not only split from AQC but made ideological concessions to better accommodate new technocratic forms of governance.

The idea that Al-Qa'ida could shepherd a set of disparate organisations toward aims defined by al-Zawahiri and his lieutenants alone looked steadily more farfetched year after year

Such adaptations – organic or prescribed – help sustain the relevance and resilience of constituent insurgencies, but they leave the movement as a whole increasingly amorphic, with shared ideological sympathies complicated by the eclectic and sometimes contradictory features, strategies, interests and goals of different groups. In the words of Gregory Johnson, a terrorism scholar, ‘there is really not one Al Qa’ida anymore’. Consequently, the idea that AQC could shepherd these disparate organisations toward aims defined by al-Zawahiri and his lieutenants alone looked steadily more farfetched year after year.

Tenuous Friendships and Big Questions

The relationship with the Taliban, a benefactor rather than acolyte of AQ, reflects much the same dynamic. Nelly Lahoud’s book shows how strong tension and distrust existed from at least 2007, if not earlier. Bin Laden himself strongly believed that his top ally among the Taliban’s leadership, Mullah Dadullah, was killed as a result of a tip-off by rival Taliban members. The content of Lahoud’s book is largely being ignored by those who prefer to draw pictures in black and white, but this is the strongest evidence we have, being based on the papers captured in Abbottabad. We can add that this friction did not end in 2011. US–Taliban negotiations, which al-Zawahiri himself described in 2010 as potentially rendering AQ ‘impotent’, took place from late 2018 onwards, under the steer of those same Taliban leaders criticised by him and Bin Laden earlier. It seems unlikely that al-Zawahiri approved, and indeed sources within the organisation confirm that AQ was very worried, starting to fear a ‘Syrian’ drift of the Taliban. One should note, importantly, that Al-Nusra’s own drift took place over a period of years. Hence, saying that the Taliban and AQ have not split yet means little.

The de facto collapse of the US–Taliban agreement in August 2021 seemed to offer al-Zawahiri and his men a chance of averting that end, but there remained very major differences between the dominant faction within the Taliban, the Kandaharis, and AQ. The former, in particular, demanded that the status quo – in which the use of Afghanistan as a platform for launching attacks against third countries is banned – be preserved, and that a complete census of all foreign fighters be carried out, which al-Zawahiri opposed. For a time, the organisation seems to have hoped that the Haqqani network and other presumed pro-AQ elements would take control of the Emirate, but this hope seems to have since faded.

Al-Zawahiri’s death, therefore, leaves AQ in a difficult spot. In Afghanistan – an insurgent success story – should it stubbornly challenge the Taliban and the policies that they decide to develop (for their own survival), as it did in Syria via its remaining assets, such as Hurras al-Din? To do so would risk an intra-jihadist war, which could be hard for AQ to win and would further delegitimise the jihadist movement. More widely, how does al-Zawahiri’s successor reconcile the centrifugal propensities of franchising – and the strategic benefits it offers – with the need to preserve AQC’s authority and global vision? If Syria might be sold as a road accident, a repeat in Afghanistan or elsewhere would confirm that AQ’s ‘island hopping’ strategy to establish a Caliphate is inherently flawed.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Antonio Giustozzi

Senior Research Fellow

Terrorism and Conflict

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Michael Jones

Research Fellow

Terrorism and Conflict

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