Ten years after the assassination of its founder Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda bears little resemblance to the terrorist network that struck the United States on September 11, 2001, but remains a threat even under a radically different leadership structure.
After his assassination in Pakistan by US special forces, Bin Laden was replaced as head of Al Qaeda by Egyptian jihadist Ayman al-Zawahiri, an ideologue who cut a much less charismatic presence.
Zawahiri must have stayed very low, most likely around the Afghan-Pakistani border, amid speculation about his survival, as the group has now mutated into something very different.
“Central QA is a shadow of itself,” Barak Mendelsohn, a terrorism expert at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, told AFP. “Zawahiri’s greatest success has been to keep Al Qaeda alive.”
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Mendelsohn said that instead of being a cohesive center of decision-making, Al Qaeda’s leadership is now more like a “council of advisers” bringing together and aiding jihadists across the world.
Zawahiri, 69, has seen Al Qaeda expand its operations mainly from the Maghreb to Somalia via Afghanistan, as well as Syria and Iraq.
“Under Zawahiri’s leadership, Al-Qaeda has become increasingly decentralized, with authority resting primarily in the hands of leaders affiliated with Al-Qaeda,” according to a recent report by the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) think tank.
He said that Zawahiri had indeed played a major role in the reorganization of many jihadist groups under the auspices of Al Qaeda.
In late 2020, unconfirmed reports re-emerged that Zawahiri had died of heart disease, the latest in years of rumors that he was in fact dead.
He then appeared in a video denouncing the plight of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar.
But the lack of a precise date on the video made it impossible to confirm or deny whether he is still alive – and analysts have already noted his exceptional longevity since he joined jihadist circles four decades ago. in Egypt.
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Uncertainty over the composition of al-Qaeda’s leadership intensified last August after the assassination in Tehran, apparently by Israeli agents, of Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, number two in the group under al-Zawahiri and known by his wartime name of Abu Mohammed. al-Masri.
If Zawahiri is still alive, it means that Al-Qaeda is ruled by a man who is most likely in poor health who, despite being one of the architects of the September 11, 2001 attacks, does not have the macabre magnetism of his predecessor.
The United States issued a bounty of $ 25 million for Zawahiri and put him on its list of most wanted terrorists, but analysts say officials don’t seem overly concerned about him and aren’t making an effort manifestos to track him down.
Washington’s lack of interest may be due to al Qaeda’s weakening importance as a center of decision-making, coinciding with the rise of rival Islamic State.
ISIS, which in its heyday controlled a self-proclaimed “caliphate” comprising entire swathes of Iraq and Syria, notably stole Al-Qaeda’s thunder in the media as its radical voice dominated social media.
Rather than joining forces, the two groups have fought on many battlefields in the Middle East and Africa, and Al Qaeda still faces the challenge of staying relevant.
Whatever the fate of Zawahiri, his era is coming to an end and experts are naming a clear candidate as his possible future successor, his Egyptian compatriot Saif al-Adel.
Adel is a former Egyptian special forces lieutenant colonel who joined the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group in the 1980s. He was arrested but was later released and traveled to Afghanistan to join Al Qaeda under Zawahiri.
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“Adel played a crucial role in building the operational capacities of Al Qaeda and quickly rose through the hierarchical ranks,” the CEP said, adding that he had also played a central role in training the pirates of the air that carried out the attacks of September 11.
A 2018 UN report said he was based in Iran. Following Masri’s reported murder in Tehran, Iran reiterated its refusal to offer sanctuary to members of Al Qaeda.
“There is a possibility of surprise, maybe there would be a shift to the next generation,” Mendelsohn said.
And with Adel still a shadow figure that little is known about, Mendelsohn added that it’s not clear what sort of reputation he has among young fighters.
Colin Clarke, research director at the US think tank Soufan Center, added that “it is important to differentiate between the Al Qaeda organization and the movement it has helped to stimulate.”
“For some, the core of Al Qaeda led by Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Zawahiri, is a relic of a bygone era,” he said. “But he’s proven to be remarkably resilient in the past. It’s still too early to write the group’s obituary.”