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Would jihad’s new generation kill off al-Qaeda’s global leader Ayman al-Zawahiri?

Author:  Clint Watts
April 21, 2014

Would jihad’s new generation kill off al-Qaeda’s global leader Ayman al-Zawahiri?

In November of 1989, a car passed through a street in Peshawar, Pakistan only to be demolished by a roadside bomb.  Inside, the single most inspirational figure of the Afghanistan jihad, Abdallah Azzam, lay dead along with two of his sons.  The most effective jihadi prostelytizer of his era, Azzam inspired thousands to come and fight in the name of Islam to defeat Soviet aggression in Afghanistan.  Later, Azzam’s campaign and concepts would morph to become part of the foundation for the world’s most notorious terror group–al-Qaeda. 

Jihadis prefer to pass blame for Azzam’s death to the Mossad; a convenient scapegoat that would seemingly make sense in one context.  Azzam, a Palestinian by birth, toyed with the notion of carrying the jihad from Afghanistan to Palestine.  But the evidence of Mossad responsibility is scant, and in reality its equally or more plausible that Azzam’s death came not from afar but from within jihadi ranks.  At the time of his death, younger jihadis were interested in sustaining the Peshawar base as a training and staging ground for global jihad against other apostate regimes.  Usama Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Musab al-Suri were some of the foreign fighters wishing to continue the jihadi campaign elsewhere, but they were likely stifled by the older and wiser Azzam.  While we can’t know for sure whether Bin Laden, Zawahiri, Suri or one of their contemporaries triggered Azzam’s assassination rather than the Mossad or Pakistani ISI, when comparing two theories the general rule of thumb is the simplest explanation is more likely the correct one.  Who would have a stronger motive for Azzam’s murder, easier access to Azzam as a target and the ability to effectively employ an IED on a moving car?  The Israeli Mossad based thousands of miles away and likely more focused on local terror concerns at their doorstep?  Or the emerging generation of al-Qaeda, disagreeing with their leader over direction and targeting, jealous of Azzam’s fame, well trained in roadside bombs and with easy access to the target?

I point to the historical example of Azzam because the past decade’s narratives of a unified al-Qaeda bound tightly by an all powerful ideology have blinded us to a truth that is only now revealing itself.  Today, the greatest threat to al-Qaeda is al-Qaeda.  One year ago, I had several Twitter arguments with counterterrorism (CT) aficionados over the possibility of al-Qaeda killing off its own members.  Some thought this preposterous, arguing the ideological underpinnings of al Qaeda were so strong as any such internal violent purge would be deemed unethical by global jihadi cadres.  But my past research on al-Qaeda’s internal documents convinced me long ago that the terror group was just like any organization-–full of petty, bickering and competing individuals constantly undercutting each other.  When things go poorly, jihadis behave badly, and ideology doesn’t pave over the differences and jealousy between al-Qaeda members.  

Less than six months after having the above mentioned Twitter argument, we watched al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s official affiliate brought in by Ayman al-Zawahiri in 2012, destroy itself during the summer and fall of 2013 murdering ‘Old Guard’ al-Qaeda member Ibrahim al-Afghani and the notorious American foreign fighter Omar Hammami amongst others.  Again some CT pundits supporting the al-Qaeda purist argument saw Somalia as an exception, a peripheral jihadi theater plagued by clannism.  (Hedgehog thinking at its height.)  Fast forward six months to the start of 2014 and we see all out war in al-Qaeda’s ranks with al-Qaeda’s affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS directly fighting and killing each other in jihad’s marque theater-–Syria.  One can jump on social media right now and sort through pictures of jihadis killing other jihadis or hear of a recent ISIS suicide bomber killing an old al-Qaeda hand.  Just over a year ago, I bantered back and forth with Omar Hammami on Twitter that the leading cause of death for jihadis is jihadis-–a statement that is more true today than it was then. 

A scenario I didn’t include but should have considered a few weeks back during Part 4 of my “Smarter Counterterrorism”series is whether al-Qaeda or its main rival ISIS would actually dethrone its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, by killing him or ensuring his capture?  Michael Hanna brought this scenario to my attention while I was also receiving a tip from JM Berger about a new ISIS media campaign surfacing on Twitter.  The campaign, marked by an Arabic hashtag (قاعدة_الظواهري_لا_تمثل_قاعدة_أسامة #), roughly translates to “Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda Is Not Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda”.  It’s a true reflection of the turmoil al-Qaeda has undergone since Bin Laden’s death.  With open fighting in Syria, would ISIS, the upstarts of jihad’s next generation, undertake the ultimate coup by knocking off Zawahiri and orienting the jihad in a fresh direction?  Or would al-Qaeda Central itself recognize the need to remove Zawahiri to make room for a new leader? It’s very unlikely. I would put the odds of such a scenario at less than 10%.  But there are a few reasons, in addition to al-Qaeda’s history of internal purges, that might encourage a Zawahiri internal removal now more than other times in al Qaeda’s past.

  • ISIS Support & Target Access In Pakistan – Most assume that Zawahiri, like Bin Laden, took refuge in Pakistan after leaving Afghanistan.  Just recently, one of ISIS’s overhyped mergers came not from the Middle East or North Africa but instead from a dirty dozen or so dissenters in Pakistan.  While the names seemed largely unremarkable and relatively unknown (possibly even bogus), the merger nonetheless suggests some degree of dissent near al-Qaeda Central’s ranks and the possibility of access to Zawahiri by ISIS supporters.   Could ISIS supporters be the entity aware of Zawahiri’s location and motivated to make an attempt on his life? Or could they merely cough up Zawahiri to counterterror forces allowing the West or the ISI to kill or capture him?  Similar accusations to this were made against Ahmed Godane, Shabaab’s leader, who allegedly served up contrarian foreign fighters, such as Harun Fazul, in Somalia for targeting.
  • Paving the way for Wuhayshi to ascend to al Qaeda’s throne – Zawahiri formally appointed Nasir Wuhayshi, the leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as the deputy of al-Qaeda globally.  This move made sense strategically for two reasons. First, AQAP under Wuhayshi has been the most successful and lethal affiliate against the U.S. drawing respect from jihadis young and old and being sought for guidance from as far away as AQIM in the Sahel. Second, Wuhayshi was a Bin Laden man from the Arabian Peninsula. By elevating Wuhayshi, Zawahiri selected a “Vice President” that could bind a Gulf constituency for which Zawahiri likely lacked overwhelming support.  But will Zawahiri’s strategy work? Yemen, like parts of North Africa, hosts legions of younger Saudi and Yemeni foreign fighters that fought in Iraq with today’s ISIS leaders.  Likewise, if an al-Qaeda insider were to want to see al-Qaeda truly thrive in the future, anointing a more respected and effective Wuhayshi through the removal of Zawahiri might be just what al Qaeda globally needs to thrive again in the face of a belligerent ISIS.  I’m not saying Wuhayshi would orchestrate such a coup. I’d just like to raise the possibility of a more strategic and forward thinking al-Qaeda Central insider doing what needs to be done for the good of al-Qaeda’s global brand.
  • ISIS might already be building a case for Zawahiri’s elimination – Just this weekend, references to the cloudy circumstances of Azzam’s murder have surfaced amongst ISIS supporters.  (See tweet below.)  These messages seem to suggest that Zawahiri or ‘Old Guard’ al-Qaeda members were responsible for Azzam’s death. 

As a concluding note, I would also put forth that today, more than any time in the past couple years, I believe the West is vulnerable for an al-Qaeda Central directed plot.  Al-Qaeda:

  • Needs a spectacular attack to reassert its global authority as top dog
  • Could benefit from how an attack would divert attention from its killing of dissenters (ISIS)
  • Might like to distinguish its targeting focus on the far enemy as opposed to sectarian issues; and
  • The U.S. hasn’t been this distracted (due to Snowden, Russia-Ukraine, Iran, Syria, etc.) with regards to counterterrorism since 9/11.

Next post, back to the conclusion (Part 5) of the Smarter Counterterrorism series

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