Killing of al-Zawahiri opens way for troubled succession inside al-Qaeda

By Salaam Times and AFP

In this photograph taken July 31, smoke rises from a house following a US drone strike in the Sherpur area of Kabul, where al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed. [AFP]

In this photograph taken July 31, smoke rises from a house following a US drone strike in the Sherpur area of Kabul, where al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed. [AFP]

The killing of al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in a US drone strike on his hideout in Kabul opens the way for a potentially troubled succession process for the extremist group, experts said.

The Egyptian extremist, killed Sunday (July 31) in a high-precision strike on his "safe house" in Sherpur, one of Kabul's most affluent neighbourhoods, never attempted to replicate the charisma and influence of his predecessor.

But after US special forces killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011, he played a key role in encouraging a decentralisation of the group, which resulted in al-Qaeda franchises emerging all over the globe.

These include al-Shabaab, which still controls a large chunk of rural Somalia, the JNIM active in West Africa -- in particular Mali -- and the al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) branch.

This undated picture released October 10, 2001, by the FBI shows Egyptian Saif al-Adel. Al-Adel has been named as a possible successor to al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, killed in a strike on July 31. [HO-FBI/AFP]

This undated picture released October 10, 2001, by the FBI shows Egyptian Saif al-Adel. Al-Adel has been named as a possible successor to al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, killed in a strike on July 31. [HO-FBI/AFP]

Al-Zawahiri "accepted major new players in the al-Qaeda network", said Hans-Jakob Schindler, director of the NGO Counter-Extremism Project and a former UN advisor.

"So it is a blow to al-Qaeda," he said.

Potential Egyptian successor

Among the likeliest successors are two other Egyptians: Saif al-Adel and Abu Abd al-Karim al-Masri.

Al-Adel is a former Egyptian special forces officer and figure in the old guard of al-Qaeda, whose presence has been reported in Iran.

After joining the Egyptian extremist movement in the 1980s, he was arrested and then released, ending up in Afghanistan, which was the base for bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, and joining al-Qaeda.

According to the Counter Extremism Project (CEP), he was arrested in Iran in 2003 and freed in 2015 in a prisoner exchange. He was still suspected of being in Iran in 2018 as one of al-Zawahiri's key deputies.

"Al-Adel played a crucial role in building al-Qaeda's operational capabilities and quickly ascended the hierarchy," the CEP said.

Barak Mendelsohn, a political scientist at Haverford College in the United States and author of several books on al-Qaeda, has described al-Adel as a "big name" in the movement who "should be the next in line".

But he stressed that al-Adel had spent several years hiding in Iran, thus possibly staying away from al-Qaeda's new generation of leaders.

"I am not sure how strong his position is within al-Qaeda, especially now that the old generation, basically all the old guard, is dead," he said.

Iran's Shia rulers officially oppose al-Qaeda, but the Islamic Republic has been repeatedly accused of co-operating with the network and giving sanctuary to its leaders.

Al-Masri, the other Egyptian contender to succeed al-Zawahiri, also known as "Karim", is part of the leadership of Syrian extremist group Hurras al-Deen and might be in Syria.

A Yemeni leader of Hurras al-Deen was killed June 27 in a US drone strike on the edge of Idlib city in northwestern Syria as he travelled alone on a motorbike, and two other officials of the group were killed in similar style last September.

The US State Department's Rewards for Justice programme is offering a reward of up to $5 million for information on al-Masri, described as a "veteran member of al-Qaeda and senior leader of Hurras al-Deen".

"In 2018, al-Masri was a member of Hurras al-Deen's shura council, the group’s senior decision-making body," according to the Rewards for Justice website.

He "served as a mediator between Hurras al-Deen and Tahrir al-Sham, an al-Qaeda-linked umbrella group from which Hurras al-Deen had broken away," it said.

Succession is 'the big question'

"Al-Zawahiri was not involved in the day-to-day decision-making of the affiliates," Schindler said.

"But you need a figurehead with a certain prominence and seniority because all the heads of all the affiliates need to swear personal loyalty to him," he added.

"So replacing him is going to be a bit of a challenge."

The al-Qaeda succession is the "big question" in the wake of the killing of al-Zawahiri, said SITE Intelligence Group director and co-founder Rita Katz.

"Unlike the situation after Osama bin Laden's killing, so much of its leadership has moved to Syria, where many were killed," she said.

She said that little is known about the whereabouts of al-Adel but emphasised it was far from certain he was still in Iran, where observers say he spent some two decades.

"Rumours are that he was released from prison in Iran and moved to Syria. However, not much is known," she said.

The killing of a number of al-Qaeda old guard figures in recent years has left the network with a "dwindling bench of potential successors", said the Soufan Centre, a US-based security research organisation, in an intelligence update Tuesday.

Al-Adel's "long presence" in overwhelmingly Shia Iran "might taint his candidature in certain circles", it said.

Younger al-Qaeda cadres may prefer a figure like al-Masri, who in Syria "worked assiduously to cultivate ties with potential recruits more focused on local targets and motivated by parochial grievances in regions engulfed by civil war and insurgency".

"The selection of al-Qaeda's next leader will tell a great deal about the future plans of the organisation," it said.

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Zawahiri was a project whose time had expired. To bring another person to the scene, Zawahiri was eliminated. If the killers of Zawahiri had asked for the reward on his head, he could have been killed, but he didn't want it at that time, but now it was no longer useful for him, and he finally ended it. And ended it so that Afghanistan was introduced to the world as an unsafe country. They showed the international community that Afghanistan is not peaceful, but Afghanistan and Afghans hate war. They are tired of it. For God's sake, do this bullshit somewhere else. Let Afghans also enjoy life for a few days and breathe easily. For God's sake, supporters of individuals/groups like Zawahiri should try their strength elsewhere. Zawahiri was a disaster for Afghans, and his successor will be a disaster for Afghans.


Terrorists have strengthened their roots worldwide so much that the death and life of al-Zawahiri cannot bring any change. One aspect is that al-Zawahiri was old, sick, and had lost his relationship with the fighters. Still, on the other hand, during the time of Al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda was able to increase its movements in South-East Asian and African countries, recruit new people, and more aggressively engage in destructive activities to achieve their goals. In my opinion, if anyone replaces Zawahiri, he will be a terrorist and vandal and considering that his favorite government is ruling in Kabul, it is more likely that he will settle in Afghanistan. This way, Afghanistan will face many more problems.


In my opinion, Al-Qaeda has lost its previous importance. Its organizational structure has weakened and most of its fighters have been killed in the Syrian war or have joined ISIS and other terrorist groups. For years and especially after the killing of Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda hasn’t had the mobility it had before, and this group cannot pose any potential threat to the peace and security of the world. Its arms in Africa, especially in Somalia and also in the Arabian peninsula, mainly in Yemen have been severely weakened by the air strikes of the United States forces. Unfortunately, more destructive terrorist groups have emerged in the name of religion. Currently, ISIS, which has most of Al-Qaeda’s fighters in its formation, poses the biggest threat to the security of the world and the region. However, the killing of bin Laden is worth thinking about at least from a symbolic and ideological point of view. Al-Zawahiri was popular among terrorists for his close friendship with Osama bin Laden and his death will naturally cause more divisions in the group. If anyone takes the leadership of Al-Qaeda and Al-Zawahiri’s place, I don’t think that he would be able to save Al-Qaeda from its possible decline.


The killing of Al-Zawahiri in the heart of Kabul city has caused divisions among the Taliban. The Taliban which are formulated from different groups and have lost their previous unity and the discrepancies amongst them are increasing day by day, are also divided in the means of reaction to the killing of Al-Zawahiri by the United States. It has been said that a large number of Taliban were against giving refuge to the world’s number one terrorist, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, because they were aware that he was wanted by the United States and this would cause the United States to mistrust the Taliban more and more. Meanwhile, another group of the Taliban headed by the Haqqanis and has the closest ties with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was in favor of sheltering him. According to Radio Liberty, Zalmay Khalilzad, in an interview with the United States National Public Radio (NPR), referred to the Haqqani as the group which sheltered Ayman Al-Zawahiri. The former special representative of the United States for the Afghan peace process said, that some elements among the Taliban are violating the Doha agreement between the Taliban and the United States "by doing such things", in his words. He said, "some elements violate the agreement signed between the United States of America and the Taliban, and this action of Haqqanis has affected other achievements. They forgot that supporting Al-Qaeda would cost them a lot." According to the statements made by Mr. Khalilzad, who had the