By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
In a speech on August 1, President Biden announced the death of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri as the result of an air strike. The killing of this leader closes a chapter in the War on Terror.
For most of his life, al-Zawahiri was at the epicenter of the jihadi world, working as a deputy leader under Osama bin Laden. He was directly involved in numerous terrorist attacks, including the attack on the World Trade Center buildings on September 11, 2001.
Ironically, al-Zawahiri was a medical doctor by training, with a degree from Cairo University in Egypt. However, he made it his life’s mission to destroy at all costs those who he deemed were the enemies of Islam, which included the killing of innocent civilians. After a manhunt that has spread over 21 years, his story is finally at an end.
Al-Zawahiri and the Evolution of Jihadism
During his lifetime, al-Zawahiri saw the evolution of the jihadi movement through its different phases. On a pilgrimage to Mecca (known as the hajj, a religious duty for Muslims), he met Osama Bin Laden.
Between 1980 and 1981, al-Zawahiri travelled to Pakistan to assist the Afghani mujahideen in their war against the Soviets. He served as a surgeon for the Red Crescent, a humanitarian organization.
Later, al-Zawahiri moved to Afghanistan. He worked with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida to facilitate the training and dispatching of Arab-world fighters to fight against the Soviet invaders.
At one point, al-Zawahiri even came to the U.S. His trip was part of a fundraising tour that brought him to mosques on the East and West Coast.
Al-Zawahiri Aspired to Be an Intellectual
During his life, al-Zawahiri tried to present himself as an intellectual. But he never gained notoriety as an alim (a scholar recognized as an expert in Islamic law and theology) and was not even a very inspirational speaker.
As Middle East experts Matthew Levitt and Aaron Y. Zelin note in an article for The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “Unlike his predecessor, he was not known for inspirational rhetoric or media savvy, showing a preference for long, boring treatises and videotaped sermons that led many to see him as a less formidable terrorist leader than bin Laden. Yet Zawahiri undeniably provided much of the intellectual foundation for AQ’s international agenda of committing mass-casualty terrorist attacks and promoting jihadist governance.”
Al-Zawahiri lacked the religious credentials of people like Abdallah Azam. As Bruce Riedel, a former CIA counterterrorism expert and adviser to four U.S. presidents said to the Washington Post: “Zawahiri is the ideologue of al-Qaida, a man of thought rather than a man of action. His writings are ponderous and sometimes unbelievably boring.”
Al-Zawahiri’s Views of Global Politics
Al-Zawahiri had religious-based views on global politics. As he stated in a letter to fellow terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, “I want to be the first to congratulate you for what God has blessed you with in terms of fighting battle in the heart of the Islamic world, which was formerly the field for major battles in Islam’s history, and what is now the place for the greatest battle of Islam in this era, and what will happen, according to what appeared in the Hadiths of the Messenger of God about the epic battles between Islam and atheism.”
For al-Zawahiri, there was a messianic quality to the attacks on the U.S. and the West. He saw the actions of groups like al-Qaida as ensuring a spiritual redemption that would come after a bloody war was waged between Muslims and infidels.
But there was more to this process than attacking the West. Al-Zawahiri also noted that there was a need for change in the Islamic world and supported the establishment of a caliphate.
According to the letter written to al-Zarqawi, he said, “It has always been my belief that the victory of Islam will never take place until a Muslim state is established in the manner of the Prophet in the heart of the Islamic world, specifically in the Levant, Egypt, and the neighboring states of the Peninsula and Iraq; however, the center would be in the Levant and Egypt.
“This is my opinion, which I do not preach as infallible, but I have reviewed historical events and the behavior of the enemies of Islam themselves, and they did not establish Israel in this triangle surrounded by Egypt and Syria and overlooking the Hijaz except for their own interests.”
Who Will Replace Zawahiri and What Will Be the Future of Al-Qaida?
Now that al-Zawahiri is gone, who will replace him as the leader of al-Qaida? Saif al-Adl, another Egyptian and a veteran jihadist, is one potential successor. However, al-Adl is under house arrest in Iran and is watched by a regime that is not interested in letting him out of its sight.
Levitt and Zelin speculate that another leadership candidate could be Abd al-Rahman al-Maghrebi, the son-in law of al-Zawahiri. However, Levitt and Zelin also noted that naming Adl or al-Maghrebi as the next emir “could create internal legitimacy issues. Another possibility is promoting a young, charismatic, but relatively unknown leader with whom potential recruits could connect in a way Zawahiri never did. AQ continues to compete with IS for followers and recruits, so finding a dynamic new leader will likely be a priority.”
But the consensus seems to be that it does not really matter who will replace al-Zawahiri in al-Qaida, since he did not lead the group in any operational capacity. What is clear is that the U.S. government has a long memory and a strong idea of where its security threats – dormant or not – are located. Clearly, the War on Terror will not end until the enemy lays down its weapons.