The reported deaths of Al-Qaeda’s top two leaders in recent months have raised questions approximately the future strategy and strength of the terrorism network, already a shadow of the global force it used to be two decades ago.
The New York Times reported final week that Al-Qaeda’s deputy leader Abdullah Ahmad Abdullah, who went by the nom-de-guerre Abu Muhammad al-Masri, used to be secretly killed in Tehran in August by two Israeli operatives at Washington’s behest.
Meantime, prominent experts on Al-Qaeda have quoted sources as saying that Ayman al-Zawahiri, who succeeded Osama Bin Laden as the chief of the group in the back of the September 11, 2001, attacks on america, could also be deceased.
Iran has strongly denied the outline over the killing of Abdullah, while Al-Qaeda has not issued any confirmation of the purported death of al-Zawahiri through its usual media channels.
Yet the reports have come as questions grow over Al-Qaeda’s future intentions, with the network radically different from the franchise that spread fear world wide under the leadership of the charismatic Bin Laden.
– ‘Very typical of AQ’ –
The killing of the Saudi in a US operation in Pakistan in 2011 left the group in the hands of al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian veteran of jihad and the key Al-Qaeda ideologue, but without Bin Laden’s ability to rally radicals world wide.
Hassan Hassan, director of the US-based Center for Global Policy (CGP), said at the weekend that al-Zawahiri had died a month ago of natural causes.
And Rita Katz, director of the jihadist media monitor SITE, said unconfirmed reports were circulating that al-Zawahiri had died.
“It is rather typical of AQ to not publish news approximately the death of its leaders in a timed manner,” she said.
Nonetheless, this isn’t the first time there have been reports of al-Zawahiri’s death, only for him to re-emerge on several occasions.
“Intelligence agencies imagine he’s very sick,” said Barak Mendelsohn, associate professor at Haverford College and creator of several books on Al-Qaeda and jihadism.
“In the long run, whether it did not happen now, it’s going to happen soon,” he told AFP.
– ‘Board of advisors’ –
Whether either or both men are deceased, the group they’ve left in the back of can in no way be in comparison to the network which deliberate and carried out the September 11 attacks, analysts say.
Its ideology has spawned several franchises across the world that bear its name, including in Africa’s Sahel region, in Pakistan in addition to in Somalia, Egypt and Yemen.
But it does not regulate their actions or the alliances that they may forge on a native level.
Mendelsohn said he expected Al-Qaeda’s leadership to act more along the lines of a “board of advisors” one day.
“People will listen to AQ central leadership whether they need to, not because they think they’re bound to obey its view,” he said.
No longer the supreme jihadist group, Al-Qaeda has seen other outfits grow and has on occasion clashed with them on the ground.
It has been overshadowed by the Islamic State (IS) group which sought to carve out a caliphate in Iraq and Syria and coordinated attacks in Europe.
– Who’s next? –
The key challenge of a new leader would be to keep the group’s potency inside this context.
Many analysts point to one key candidate — Saif al-Adel, a former lieutenant-colonel in the Egyptian armed forces who joined the Egyptian jihadist movement in the 1980s.
He used to be arrested and then released, ending up in Afghanistan which used to be the base for Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, and joining Al-Qaeda.
According to the US-based Counter Extremism Project (CEP) think tank, he used to be arrested in Iran in 2003 and freed in 2015 in a prisoner exchange. He used to be still believed to be in Iran in 2018 as one of al-Zawahiri’s key deputies.
“Adel played a a very powerful role in building Al-Qaeda’s operational capabilities and quickly ascended the hierarchy,” the CEP said.
Mendelsohn said Adel used to be a “big name” in the movement and “must be the next in line”.
But he stressed that Adel, together with Abdullah, spent several years hiding in Iran, thus maybe staying absent from Al-Qaeda’s new generation of leaders.
“I’m not certain how strong his position is inside Al-Qaeda, particularly now that the old generation, basically the entire old guard, is deceased.”