While the terrorist group is not short of contenders, its ranks are sparser and more geographically dispersed than 10 or 20 years ago.
Here’s what we know about who could be the next Al Qaeda leader.
The man tipped by many analysts to be 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 has spent much of the past two decades in Iran.
Adel was a loyal servant to Osama bin Laden before acting as al Qaeda’s interim leader in 2011. He organized the succession process in favor of Zawahiri because that was bin Laden’s wish — even though Adel himself might have been a more effective choice as competition from ISIS grew in the following years.
Saif al-Adel is his nom de guerre, which translates as Sword of Justice. It’s not the only mystery about the man.
There are just a couple of purported photographs of him in existence. He is said to have faked his death in his 20s. His status in Iran has also been unclear: sometimes detained, sometimes under house arrest, sometimes at liberty.
Ali Soufan, former FBI special agent and author of “Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State,” describes Adel as the ultimate insider, someone well-connected across many countries, and a shrewd military tactician. For much of his adult life he has lived and breathed al Qaeda.
Soufan wrote in the Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinel journal recently that Adel played “a central role in audacious attacks from the ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident in Somalia to the bombings of US embassies in East Africa and the suicide attack on the destroyer the USS Cole.”
“When he acts, he does so with ruthless efficiency,” Soufan added. “Above all, he is a pragmatist — a man who would have known that despite the hateful necessity of living under a [Shia] government anathema to Sunni [al Qaeda], his best chance of survival, and therefore of continued effectiveness in the jihad, lay in a return to Iran.”
Soufan also notes that al-Adel was a mentor to the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose organization later morphed into ISIS.
“Saif as emir would enjoy a rare opportunity to attract some former Islamic State members back into [al Qaeda],” Soufan suggests.
The Africa affiliates
A UN expert report earlier this year contended that others in the running for al Qaeda’s leadership were from the organization’s robust African affiliates.
It mentioned three possible candidates besides al-Adel: Abdal-Rahman al-Maghrebi; Yazid Mebrak, the head of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); and Ahmed Diriye, the leader of Shabaab in Somalia.
Maghrebi would, as it were, keep it in the family, 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 “long-time director” of As Sahab, al Qaeda’s media operation. He is 52.
In papers discovered at bin Laden’s Pakistani hideout, another senior figure in al Qaeda said Maghrebi “has high morals, he can keep a secret, and he is patient. His ideology is prudent, and he has excellent awareness.”
Mebrak, an Algerian, became leader of AQIM in 2020. He is also known as Abu Ubaydah Yusuf al-Anabi.
In designating him, the State Department said he “was expected to play a role in al Qaeda’s global management,” as did his predecessor as AQIM leader.
He is a veteran of jihad in the Sahel, where al Qaeda and ISIS groups compete for superiority.
Another affiliate to have survived despite the best efforts of the United States and a multinational east African force is al Shabaab in Somalia. It has been prone to internal rifts and its fortunes have swung wildly but it has 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 a leader from Africa would be a cultural leap. Some former al Qaeda insiders say that senior 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 governing Shura (council), which had a critical role in the election of Zawahiri, is hard to discern. When Zawahiri was selected, he had already been anointed by bin Laden as his successor but it still took some time to garner the “bayat”– the oath of loyalty — of far-flung members of the council. The working assumption among analysts is that members of the Shura may over the next few weeks begin to declare bayat to al Qaeda’s third leader.
The leadership of al Qaeda 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 jihadis.
The UN panel of experts on international terrorism believes “the international context is favourable to [al Qaeda], which intends to be recognized again as the leader of global jihad.”
As ISIS has waned in the Middle East (although it retains a lethal 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 the key actor in inspiring the international threat,” the UN experts concluded.
Within Afghanistan, al Qaeda’s predominant presence has been in the south and east, though the UN experts noted that it may be seeking to establish a presence in western provinces bordering Iran.
Al Qaeda is not without friends within 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 so long as the Taliban rule the country, even if its many of its operations take place thousands of miles away.
The successor’s task will be to re-establish the group’s relevance while harnessing disparate franchises across Asia, Africa and the Middle East — and perhaps inspiring a new generation to carry out attacks in its name in Western cities.