Its founder, Osama bin Laden, embodied global jihad and inspired a generation of activists. For five months, however, al-Qaeda has been deprived of a protective figure and has refrained from admitting the death of its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as announced by Washington. On August 2, US President Joe Biden announced that he had killed the Egyptian jihadist in Afghanistan in a drone strike. Since then, like last week, the official media of the jihadist center have been broadcasting undated audio or video messages from the uncharismatic leader with the long white beard. Without confirming or denying his death.
“It’s really strange. A network only works with a leader. You need someone around whom everything revolves,” notes Hans-Jakob Schindler, director of the independent think tank Counter-Extremism Project (CEP), for AFP. Almost all options remain open. “Clearly, the United States could be wrong about his death,” researchers Raffaello Pantucci and Kabir Taneja noted on the Lawfare website in early December.
They recalled that the announcements of the executions of key jihadist leaders, which then resurfaced, had already struck Westerners. “It seems unlikely given the confidence with which President Biden has spoken about the strike,” they noted.
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Another hypothesis is that the group failed to contact Zawahiri’s alleged successor, his ex-number two, Saif al-Adl. This former lieutenant colonel in the Egyptian special forces joined the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (JIE) in the 1980s. First arrested and then released, he had reached Afghanistan and joined al-Qaeda, like Zawahiri, where he had become number two.
But al-Adl is regularly described as hiding in Iran, the Shia Islamic republic that shows little sympathy for the ultra-radical Sunni movement. He “clearly lives in a dangerous and cramped environment,” the two researchers affirmed. For Hans-Jakob Schindler, “Saïf is a responsibility, but also an enrichment for the Iranian regime”. Tehran, depending on its interests, could hand him over to the Americans or, on the contrary, let him be beaten.
Yet another scenario: Al Qaeda’s silence would be enforced by the Taliban. Zawahiri was gunned down in an affluent neighborhood of Kabul, where the Afghan masters could not ignore his presence “al-Qaeda” while sparing Washington, to whom they promised not to let the group act as it wished. Al-Adl could also be dead. Or go into hiding to avoid the fate of his predecessor and the two leaders of rival jihadist group and sworn enemy Islamic State (IS), who were killed eight months apart in 2022.
Apparently, nothing is crystal clear within an organization that is now very different from the one that perpetrated the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.
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