After the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden in an airborne operation carried out by American forces, Al-Qaeda did not face a leadership crisis because his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was expected to assume leadership of the organization despite the existence of several other candidates. This contrasts with the current situation of the organization, after the killing of al-Zawahiri in a US strike targeting his residence in the Afghan capital of Kabul, announced by US President Joe Biden on the morning of August 2, 2022. Apart from the circumstances, dimensions, and repercussions of the targeting of al-Zawahiri for various parties—particularly the Taliban, which bears direct responsibility for providing safe havens for Al-Qaeda leaders, specifically Ayman al-Zawahiri—Al-Qaeda may face a crisis in choosing its new leader.
Before addressing the most likely candidates to succeed Ayman al-Zawahiri as leader of Al-Qaeda, several factors regarding the choice of a new leader should be considered.
1. Deliberate rupture of the chain of command: Washington’s strategy of "leadership decapitation" to go after the leaders of terrorist organizations does not depend solely on targeting the heads of those organizations but also includes prominent and influential leaders, as well as leaders and cadres that could rise in the chain of command, within a "target bank" that updates and evaluates priority targets. In 2011, within a few months of the killing of former Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the US succeeded in targeting a prominent leader of the organization, Attiya Allah al-Libi. A Foreign Affairs article referred to a CIA official’s assessment that targeting al-Libi was more important than al-Zawahiri, who had assumed leadership of Al-Qaeda.
The US has targeted many prominent leaders likely to succeed al-Zawahiri, including Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, who was targeted in Syria, Abu Mohammed al-Masri, targeted in Iran, and Nasir al-Wuhayshi, targeted in Yemen. The latter was seen in jihadi circles as Bin Laden’s successor, despite his comparative youth, due to his influence and popularity in those circles.
2. Generational crisis within the organization: US targeting operations—which follow two parallel tracks, namely, pursuing Al-Qaeda leaders both in Afghanistan and Pakistan and in its key branches—have created a generational crisis within the organization at the senior leadership level in both Al-Qaeda Central and its branches. However, the most significant effects have been on the central leadership, which has experienced severe pressure since the US declared the War on Terror and carried out military operations in Afghanistan following the events of September 11, 2001—resulting in the targeting of the organization’s prominent leaders and the detention of others trying to slip into Iran as a result of Al-Qaeda’s curtailed activity in Afghanistan.
The central leadership seemed further isolated from its various branches and did not provide leaders who could be promoted to leadership. Although the organization tried to market Hamza bin Laden within jihadi circles, the US announced his killing in September 2019, with Al-Qaeda neither confirming nor denying his death. Apart from Hamza, the bet in Al-Qaeda circles was on Abu Mohammad al-Julani, the leader of what was then al-Nusra Front, after he pledged allegiance to al-Zawahiri to prepare himself for future leadership. However, he followed a different approach than that of the Global Jihad project and cut ties with the organization.
3. Multiple mechanisms for choosing Al-Qaeda’s leader: After al-Zawahiri’s death, personal traits and charisma may contribute to choosing the new leader of Al-Qaeda, but they will not be the sole deciding factor in the selection process, which will be based on several factors. The first factor is agreement within Al-Qaeda’s Shura Council. While there is limited information available on the composition of this council, the number of its members, and its degree of internal homogeneity, it constitutes an important link in the choice of a new leader by granting him legitimacy. Here, it can be noted that Western assessments pointed to a dispute over al-Zawahiri’s leadership of Al-Qaeda after the death of bin Laden, and the matter was not quickly settled. The second factor is approval of the new leader by the leaders of Al-Qaeda’s main branches; they are an influential factor in the process of internal cohesion, especially since these branches enjoy a degree of decentralization to avoid affecting the organization’s core, amid many challenges, including "ISIS", which could exploit any internal disarray within Al-Qaeda for its benefit.
The third factor is credibility in jihadi circles. One of the factors in selecting a new Al-Qaeda leader is the weight he carries within circles affiliated with Al-Qaeda branches and groups with close ties to the organization. This is associated with the new leader’s experiences, the length of his involvement on the front lines, and his successes. Al-Qaeda may find itself with limited choices, given its desire to elevate a person from the period known as the "Afghan jihad," or whose role was increased after the death of Bin Laden and other prominent leaders in the chain of command. In parallel, it can be noted that "ISIS", despite concealing the true identity of its new leader, indicated that he is one of the old leaders who confronted US forces after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
4. Possible arrangements for the death of al-Zawahiri: Terrorist organization leaders tend to recommend multiple leaders to succeed them upon their death, due to potential American targeting. However, the health of the former leader of Al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, may have reinforced the scenario he drew up for the organization’s new leadership, amid expectations that his death would be natural, due to illness. This prompted repeated reports, during long periods of time in which he released no audio or video clips, that he had died of natural causes and not from American targeting.
Given the factors for choosing a new Al-Qaeda leader, some of the most prominent leaders who could succeed al-Zawahiri can be highlighted in light of two main approaches.
1. Selection of an individual from central leadership: This approach focuses on choosing someone from the organization’s Shura Council in Afghanistan, or who assisted al-Zawahiri before his death and has knowledge of the organization’s affairs and its various branches— regardless of whether or not Al-Qaeda’s central leadership remains in Afghanistan in the future, given the pressures the Taliban may face from the US after the targeting of al-Zawahiri in Kabul or its repercussions inside Afghanistan, due to the group’s sponsorship of terrorism. In general, under this approach, two people stand out as potential successors to lead the organization:
a. Saif al-Adel: Saif al-Adel has been shrouded in mystery since 2001. He is the most debated figure in Al-Qaeda in terms of his true identity and his whereabouts since the killing of Osama bin Laden. The US has offered USD 10 million for information on him. According to the American program, Rewards for Justice, Saif al-Adel leads the organization’s military committee and is also a member of the Shura Council. His exact location is unknown, but his real name is believed to be Salah al-Din Zaidan, he is Egyptian, and he was one of the first participants in the so-called "Afghan jihad." However, some Western assessments indicate that he crossed the border from Afghanistan into Iran between 2002 and 2003, before he was detained with several Al-Qaeda leaders and their families in a prison or under house arrest without trial or before his presence in Iran was announced.
It was reported that Saif al-Adel was able to return to Afghanistan by the end of 2010, where he had a role in pledging loyalty to al-Zawahiri as Al-Qaeda’s leader after the death of Osama bin Laden, before returning again to Iran, according to Ali Soufan, a former American FBI agent. However, there are no concrete indications of Saif al-Adel’s role during this time. Saif al-Adel’s name came up again in 2015, in the context of a prisoner exchange deal between the Al-Qaeda branch in Yemen and Iran, under which the former released an Iranian diplomat who was being held by Al-Qaeda in Yemen in exchange for the release of five senior Al-Qaeda leaders being held in Iran. Among the names was Saif al-Adel, along with Abu Mohammed al-Masri, Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, both of whom were killed—the first in Iran, according to Western assessments, and the second in Syria. The release of Saif al-Adel and his travel outside Iran has not been revealed. While the US believes he is under house arrest in Iran, Al-Qaeda has not provided any information on Saif al-Adel.
Notably, the Al-Qaeda affiliate, Ansar al-Muslimin in the Lands of Black Africa, also known as Ansaru, in the second issue of its periodical, Voice of the Black Continent, highlighted the controversy surrounding Saif al-Adel, noting that he was part of the exchange deal between Al-Qaeda in Yemen and Iran; however, the issue of identifying his whereabouts is left to the Al-Qaeda leadership, in an attempt to refute accusations of Iranian control over Saif al-Adel given his house arrest there, which would affect his ability to lead the organization in the future.
b. Abdul Rahman al-Maghrebi: Al-Maghrebi is among those who were close to al-Zawahiri before his killing. He was his advisor as well as his son-in-law. According to the Rewards for Justice program, al-Maghrebi has been a prominent member of the organization for many years and has been "Al-Qaeda’s general manager in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2012; he relocated to Iran where he oversees Al-Qaeda’s global activities in his capacity as head of the organization’s External Communications Office." Thus, in 2021, the US designated al-Maghrebi a global terrorist and offered USD seven million to anyone with information on him.
1. Selection of a leader from an Al-Qaeda regional branch: Although terrorist organizations tend not to promote a key branch leader to head the organization, it remains an option, though unlikely, because it would mean moving the central headquarters outside Afghanistan. In this context, three leaders hold prominence:
a. Abu Ubaydah Yusuf al-Anabi: Al-Anabi is the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Also known as Yazid Mabrak, he is Algerian and succeeded the former leader, Abdelmalek Droukdel. According to the US State Department, al-Anabi heads AQIM’s Council of Notables, was a member of the Shura Council, and was a media official for the branch.
b. Khalid Batarfi: Batarfi became the leader of Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, known as Ansar al-Sharia or Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), in 2020, after the killing of former leader Qasim al-Raymi in a US air strike. Batarfi is considered a prominent Al-Qaeda leader in Yemen, and he played a role in the organization’s takeover of parts of Hadhramaut Governorate in 2015, after he was freed from prison.
c. Iyad Ag Ghaly: Ghaly leads Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), a group whose activities are focused in the Sahel, particularly Mali. He was able to unite several armed factions in the Sahel under his leadership in 2017, before announcing his allegiance to Al-Qaeda’s then leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and to AQIM. While Ghaly ranks lower in the chain of command than al-Anabi and Batarfi, JNIM’s operations in the Sahel have been remarkable over the past few years. Al-Qaeda’s activity in that area has surpassed the other branches, thus strengthening Ghaly’s image in Al-Qaeda circles.
In conclusion, it can be said that Saif al-Adel, given his history with Al-Qaeda, is the strongest candidate to assume leadership of the organization after Ayman al-Zawahiri. However, the organization faces a crisis in two regards. The first is al-Adel’s house arrest in Iran. His release from Iran would come with certain understandings between Al-Qaeda and Tehran, and his leadership could be the subject of serious skepticism among the organization’s branches, particularly in Syria and Yemen, where they are engaged in confrontations with parties supported by Iran and thus anticipate possible directives issued to them not to engage in such confrontations with Iran’s allies and militias in the region. The second potential problem is Saif al-Adel’s freedom of movement. Failure to disclose his location or the issues he handles may be part of an attempt to protect him against American targeting, in light of his hypothetical release as part of the prisoner exchange between AQAP and Iran. However, the organization may face a crisis in proving this in order to counter any anger within jihadi circles due to al-Adel’s selection as leader.
While not inconceivable that a relatively obscure figure will assume leadership of the organization, this must be acceptable to the main branches and jihadi circles. In general, because the Taliban faces pressure from accusations of sponsorship of terrorism (which increases both domestic and foreign challenges given their desire to obtain international recognition and be involved in the international community), they will be a player in the arrangements involving Al-Qaeda, through the form and nature of the understandings—either permanent residence of central Al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan, or temporary residence until the organization is equipped and ready to leave.