“You are an idiot and an imbecile,” Zawahiri said at one point in his speech, referring to a Syrian Islamist leader who was once an al-Qaeda devotee. He blasts the leader of another faction as “corrupt” and accuses a third of “moral deviation.”
When it was released in June, the video stood out because of its strikingly bitter tone. Viewed in the wake of Zawahiri’s death, it is a window into the fractious network of extremist groups that are the modern-day legacy of the terrorist movement Zawahiri helped establish four decades ago.
The death of the 71-year-old Egyptian, who was killed by a missile as he stood on the balcony of a safe house in Kabul, effectively closes a chapter on the Afghan-based terrorist group that rose to global prominence under the leadership of Osama bin Laden and gained infamy with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In the view of many counterterrorism officials and experts, the end of the Zawahiri era finds the al-Qaeda movement in a state of disarray, with most of its original leaders dead or in hiding, and a scattered network of affiliate groups preoccupied with local concerns and causes. The Islamic State, itself a virulent al-Qaeda offshoot, briefly eclipsed Zawahiri’s organization as the world’s most feared terrorist group, until it, too, was driven into hiding after suffering battlefield defeats and the loss of a succession of top leaders killed in Western military operations.
Al-Qaeda’s splintering was apparent in the hours after the U.S. strike, as different factions that once belonged to Zawahiri’s network posted starkly different reactions to his death. In social media chatrooms, some self-professed Islamists praised the slain leader as a “martyr” and accused the Taliban of betraying him. But others blamed Zawahiri for poor leadership, and for failing to prevent divisions within the Islamist movement. Still others — chiefly followers of the Islamic State — denounced him as a “puppet.”
“The uproar on jihadi social media accounts has highlighted how fragmented this community actually is,” said Steven Stalinsky, an expert on Middle Eastern terrorism and executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute, a Washington nonprofit.
Yet Zawahiri’s death also presents al-Qaeda with an opportunity to reboot, and perhaps to evolve, experts said on Tuesday. The toppling of the pedantic figurehead, notorious for his dull speeches, could provide an opening for a more charismatic new leader who could help al-Qaeda regain its stature atop the global Islamist movement.
“Will it destroy al-Qaeda? For sure not,” a European counterterrorism official who monitors al-Qaeda said in an interview, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to reporters. “Will it eliminate the threat of attacks against Western interests? Definitely not. It may even increase it.”
In the leadership vacuum created by Zawahiri’s death, far-flung al-Qaeda affiliate groups in Africa and the Middle East could become more prominent — and perhaps more dangerous, some experts said. And even al-Qaeda’s battered central branch could experience a resurgence, depending on who takes charge. In the social media age, a talented new leader could help unify fractious militants worldwide, and inspire future waves of terrorist attacks — even if al-Qaeda’s traditional core lacks the resources to carry out such attacks on its own, analysts and experts said.
“Al-Qaeda Central is a different entity than it was at the time of the 9/11 attacks,” said Rita Katz, founder of SITE Intelligence Group, which has tracked al-Qaeda’s online presence for two decades. “While it maintains an international network of affiliate groups and supporters, it doesn’t actually command them. Its role is more centered on providing spiritual leadership and lending its global brand.”
Al-Qaeda already was in decline before Zawahiri was appointed leader in the aftermath of the U.S. military operation that killed bin Laden. After being driven from Afghanistan in 2002, the group’s top commanders went into hiding, often struggling to communicate with their scattered followers or organize major terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, the United States stepped up its campaign of drone strikes that targeted key al-Qaeda and Taliban officials in their hideouts, mostly in Afghanistan and the tribal regions of northwestern Pakistan.
Bin Laden’s death in 2011 further demoralized al-Qaeda, whose members had viewed the iconic Saudi as the group’s symbolic leader. Zawahiri, his longtime chief deputy, promised a new unity after he was named as bin Laden’s replacement. Instead, his tenure was marked by multiple ruptures. Despite his personal efforts at intervention, Zawahiri in 2013 lost control of two major offshoot groups in Syria: the al-Qaeda-aligned al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State. Al-Nusra, now called Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, renounced ties with al-Qaeda. Soon the Islamic State went on the attack against the parent group, killing and capturing al-Qaeda members in Iraq and Syria. Today, al-Qaeda has no allies of significance in either country.
Major al-Qaeda franchises do still exist in Africa and also in the Persian Gulf, most notably in Yemen. But all are involved in local insurgencies, and their allegiance to al-Qaeda’s core leadership is uncertain.
Of potential importance for a future resurgence are al-Qaeda’s long-standing ties with various factions within the Afghanistan Taliban government — relations that have strengthened since the Biden administration’s withdrawal of U.S. ground troops last August. According to current and former counterterrorism officials, the Taliban would certainly have known about Zawahiri’s decision to move into the Kabul apartment building where he was staying at the time of his death. Other al-Qaeda leaders and operatives may also be viewing Afghanistan as a sanctuary in which they can regroup and rebuild.
“Zawahiri’s presence in post-withdrawal Afghanistan suggests that, as feared, the Taliban is once more granting safe haven to the leaders of al-Qaeda — a group with which it has never broken,” said Nathan Sales, a former ambassador at large and counterterrorism coordinator for the State Department during the Trump administration.
While the CIA was able to track and kill Zawahiri in Kabul using remote surveillance, it’s not clear that the U.S. success “can be replicated against other terrorist targets,” Sales added.