The Platform

Hamid Mir; Photo illustration by John Lyman

With the recent killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital a lot of speculation is happening on the future of the group he ran from hiding for many years. Some analysts have speculated that al-Qaeda is nearing its end. That is highly unlikely. After all, the group survived Osama bin Laden’s demise in 2011.

With the killing of Zawahiri, the group may regenerate itself and become more dynamic. Zawahiri was not a very charismatic personality, nor was he effective at connecting with the younger generation of jihadists. But he managed to keep the terror brand alive amidst the rise of the Islamic State.

There is a possibility that we may witness an alignment with ISIS or its affiliates. Beneath the surface, many Islamist-inspired groups share the common goal of re-establishing the caliphate. There were unique dynamics that exacerbated tensions between al-Qaeda and ISIS. This included acrimony between Zawahiri and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former leader of ISIS before being killed in 2019. Zawahiri believed he had a mandate to oversee and command ISIS, infuriating Baghdadi who publicly questioned Zawahiri’s leadership credentials and legitimacy. New leaders, less constrained by personal grievances, might recognise a tactical opportunity and look for areas of collaboration.

Al-Qaeda always believed in playing the long game, content to quietly rebuild and regroup while the world focused on defeating ISIS and destroying its caliphate. The group’s strategy is two-fold. First, to let ISIS absorb all the attention, while al-Qaeda marshaled its strength to continue its three-decade-plus struggle. And two, to portray al-Qaeda as moderate extremists, a more reliable and less transitory force than the impulsive and hyper-violent Islamic State.

This strategy was validated by the patience that led to the return of the Taliban to power. So, while al-Qaeda’s core has been less active than other rivals, that doesn’t mean that it has eschewed terrorism or given up on its struggle. The United Nations estimated that in 2020, al-Qaeda had between 400 to 600 hard-core fighters in Afghanistan and many of its members are “dual-hatted” members of both al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Members of al-Qaeda did not see the future of the group as dependent on any one single individual. With a plethora of seasoned leaders around, its cadres and affiliates feel confident that Zawahiri’s successor will be capable of leading the group. Besides the older veterans, a new generation of fighters is also being groomed for future positions. This generation has matured during a particularly challenging period and gained valuable experience on the battlefield. Despite years of war, assassinations, and isolation, al-Qaeda remains resilient and prepared to weather further shocks.

A terror group that globalized the concept of jihad and has existed since the late 1980s, is not dependent on just one leader for its survival. The motivating factors for al-Qaida’s supporters are still very much in place which will ensure a steady supply of cadres. There is a pervasive belief among extremists that the West can be pushed out of the region.

There is a real displaced aggression in that community. And with the killing of any senior leader, its followers will be more inspired to commit themselves fully to the ideology. Hence, al-Qaeda deserves close attention and should be considered a global terror threat.

Manish Rai is a geopolitical analyst and columnist for the Middle East and Af-Pak region and the editor of geopolitical news agency ViewsAround (VA). He has done reporting from Jordon, Iran, and Afghanistan. His work has been quoted in the British Parliament.