Beyond Zawahiri

The future face of Al Qaeda is likely to be different from its present one

Faisal Ali Raja August 27, 2022


The post Al Zawahiri scenario is as blurred as the details of his activities before he was targeted in a drone attack in Kabul. The complexity of his elimination is significant in the sense that the US has been vindicated on its Afghan withdrawal strategy last year in which it stated that it would maintain intelligence collection remotely to hunt down terror elements in the region. It seems that internal rifts among the primary and secondary groups in Kabul have resulted into intentional or unintentional information leakage to foreign contacts. It signifies a well calibrated human intelligence coagulated with a remote-control assault mechanism. The mutual understandings may have taken precedent over group loyalty. Moreover, the statement of Taliban was both ambiguous and equivocal. Their spokesperson has neither acknowledged presence of the Al Qaeda leader in Kabul nor indicated any Taliban-Al Qaeda contact in the country. The principal questions here are: Will any change in Al Qaeda strategy take place in the aftermath of Al Zawahiri’s elimination? Can the strategic calculus of Al Qaeda be altered with the emergence of new leadership among the rank and file of the organisation?

The future face of Al Qaeda is likely to be different from its present one. The organisation was shattered in the aftermath of 9/11 attacks when its centre of gravity was repeatedly hit resulting into disintegration of its core group. As a result, Al Qaeda has outsourced its field activities and evolved into an organisation which reaches out to other militant groups to implement its strategy. In the past, it even went a step ahead to influence a series of officials in intelligence and military agencies to convince them about their objectives. This way, Al Qaeda has been expanding the theatre of war gradually to involve new actors to accomplish its goals to muster forces in fog of war. The post Al Zawahiri era may signify a shift in which regional franchises like AQIS, AQAP and AQIM may gain prominence again as Al Qaeda looks for save havens in parts of the globe to strengthen its foothold and entice other militant groups into its fold. There has been a debate about the relevance of Al Zawahiri in the Al Qaeda operations and policies. Many may support the notion that the ideological figurehead was practically inactive and was also facing persistent health issues. But in an organisation like Al Qaeda, the personality counts a lot irrespective of whether the person is exerting himself or not. His mere presence was a source of inspiration and motivation for many.

The probable successor of Al Zawahiri cannot be from any other region than the Middle East. There is a slight chance of such an individual hailing from an abutting region to the Middle East such as north Africa. But these chances are bleak as no one important can be seen there to lead the organisation. The future choice of Al Qaeda leadership should, therefore, be an individual who can effectively push the organisation towards its ultimate goal of mobilising forces, liberating Palestine and establishing a global caliphate order. Al Qaeda has already mobilised forces in the Khurasan province which may be seen in the form of complex militancy in the region. These forces may not be at a level to stage an impressive attack to gain territorial control in the Middle East nonetheless they have the wherewithal to support the resistance groups already operating in the region.

So far, Al Qaeda has influenced appreciably regional militant forces and they may now shift their focus to localised ethnic elements as well. However, its efforts to control the people at the helm for implementation of their objectives remain a distant dream. They tried it in post-1997 Taliban controlled Afghanistan which was disrupted abruptly within years in the backdrop of 9/11 attacks. Apparently, the remaining key leaders of Al Qaeda may go into hiding for quite some time before they establish indirect connections with their ground sympathisers in various regions to chalk out a clear future strategy.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 27th, 2022.

Like Opinion & Editorial on Facebook, follow @ETOpEd on Twitter to receive all updates on all our daily pieces.


Replying to X

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

For more information, please see our Comments FAQ