While the terrorist group has no shortage of suitors, its ranks are thinner and more geographically dispersed than 10 or 20 years ago.
Here’s what we know about who Al-Qaeda’s next leader could be.
The man named by many analysts as Zawahiri’s successor is Saif al-Adel, a former Egyptian commando who is one of the last survivors of al-Qaeda’s “founding generation” and who spent much of his last two decades in Iran.
Adel was a loyal servant of Osama bin Laden before acting as acting leader of al-Qaeda in 2011. He arranged the succession process in Zawahiri’s favor because it was bin Laden’s wish – although Adel himself might have been a more effective choice against the competition ISIS grew in the following years.
Saif al-Adel is his nom de guerre, which translates to sword of justice. This is not the only mystery about the man.
Only a few alleged photographs of him exist. It is said that he faked his death in his twenties. His status in Iran is also unclear: sometimes detained, sometimes under house arrest, sometimes free.
Ali Soufan, a former FBI special agent and author of Anatomy of Terror: From Bin Laden’s Death to the Rise of the Islamic State, describes Adel as the ultimate insider, someone well-connected in many country and a shrewd military tactician. . For much of his adult life, he lived and breathed Al-Qaeda.
Soufan recently wrote in the Counterterrorism Center’s Sentinel newspaper that Adel has played “a pivotal role in audacious attacks, from the ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident in Somalia to the bombings of US embassies in East Africa. ‘East and the suicide bombing of the destroyer USS Cole.”
“When he acts, he does so with ruthless efficiency,” Soufan added. “He is above all a pragmatist, a man who would have known that despite the detestable necessity of living under a [Shia] government anathema to Sunnis [al Qaeda]his best chance for survival, and therefore continued effectiveness in jihad, lay in a return to Iran.”
Soufan also notes that al-Adel was a mentor to al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose organization later morphed into ISIS.
“Saif, as emir, would take advantage of a rare opportunity to re-attract some former members of the Islamic State. [al Qaeda]“, suggests Soufan.
A UN expert report earlier this year argued that other candidates for the leadership of al-Qaeda belong to the organisation’s strong African affiliates.
Besides al-Adel, it mentioned three possible candidates: Abdal-Rahman al-Maghrebi; Yazid Mebrak, leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); and Ahmed Diriye, the Shabaab leader in Somalia.
Maghrebi would keep him in the family, so to speak, as he is Zawahiri’s son-in-law. But he is Moroccan in an organization historically dominated by Saudis and Egyptians.
He was named a Specially Designated Global Terrorist by the US State Department last year and described as the “longtime director” of As Sahab, al-Qaeda’s media operation. He is 52 years old.
In documents discovered in bin Laden’s Pakistani hideout, another senior al-Qaeda official said Maghrebi “has high morals, he can keep a secret and he is patient. His ideology is cautious and he has an excellent awareness”.
Mebrak, an Algerian, became the leader of AQIM in 2020. He is also known as Abu Ubaydah Yusuf al-Anabi.
In appointing him, the State Department said he “must play a role in the overall management of al-Qaeda”, just like his predecessor at the head of AQIM.
He is a veteran of the jihad in the Sahel, where al-Qaeda and ISIS groups are vying for superiority.
Al Shabaab in Somalia is another affiliate that has survived despite the best efforts of the United States and an East African multinational force. He was subject to internal dissension and his fortunes tumbled wildly, but he survived a challenge from the budding ISIS.
Diriye has been its leader since 2014, a tenure of unlikely longevity. Shabaab and al-Qaeda have been united for a decade and Diriye was quick to pledge allegiance to Zawahiri when he became leader.
For al-Qaeda, the appointment of an African leader would be a cultural leap. Some former al-Qaeda insiders say Egyptian and Saudi figures within the organization often looked down on African affiliates.
Al-Qaeda has only ever had two leaders and the current status of its ruling shura (council), which played a crucial role in Zawahiri’s election, is difficult to discern. When Zawahiri was selected, he had already been nominated by bin Laden as his successor, but it still took time to secure the “bayat” – the oath of loyalty – from distant council members. The working hypothesis among analysts is that members of the Shura could, within the next few weeks, start declaring bayat to the third leader of al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda’s leadership in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, has also been decimated by US and Saudi operations.
Can al-Qaeda reinvent itself?
However, there may be opportunities for al-Qaeda to reinvent itself – whether Adel becomes the next leader or al-Qaeda turns to the next generation of battle-hardened African jihadists.
The UN Panel of Experts on International Terrorism believes that “the international context is favorable to [al Qaeda]who intends to be recognized again as the leader of the global jihad.”
While ISIS has declined in the Middle East (although it retains a deadly presence through its African affiliates and has survived in parts of Syria and Iraq)[al Qaeda] propaganda is now better developed to compete with ISIL [ISIS] as a key player in inspiring the international threat,” the UN experts concluded.
In Afghanistan, al-Qaeda’s predominant presence is in the south and east, although UN experts have noted that it may seek to establish a presence in western provinces bordering Iran.
Al-Qaeda is not without friends in Afghanistan, beyond its long historical ties with the Haqqani network, a powerful player within the Taliban regime. Its affiliates in Central Asia such as the Turkestan Islamic Party also retain a presence.
It seems likely that whoever succeeds Zawahiri, the group’s leadership will continue to have its center of gravity in Afghanistan as long as the Taliban rules the country, even though many of its operations are thousands of miles away.
The task of the successor will be to restore the group’s relevance while tapping into disparate franchises across Asia, Africa and the Middle East – and perhaps to inspire a new generation to carry out attacks in its name in western cities.