It says something about the state of jihadism today that more counterterrorism analysts hung on every word uttered by Ayman al Zawahiri than did the terrorists he ostensibly commanded.
The killing of the former leader of al Qaeda by a CIA drone attack in a house in Kabul, Afghanistan, is a symbolic victory for President Joe Biden. Zawahiri is said to have played a central role in the planning of the 9/11 attacks and generally to have contributed to the further radicalization of jihadists in the wake of the war against the Soviets in the 1980s. His killing also coincided with the first anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August and came just two weeks after the United Nations issued a major report asserting Zawahiri was still alive and that his group was resurging. For these reasons, the elimination of Zawahiri is good news all around and a clear public relations win for the Biden administration, including to show that the global war on terror continues by stealth without the need for American troops on the ground.
In the real world, though, Zawahiri stopped being relevant years ago. During his decadelong tenure at the helm of the international terrorist group, he managed to lose control of two of the key jihadist franchises because he was unable to mediate differences between them and because he was out of touch with the fast-moving and momentous events affecting his supposed followers on the ground everywhere in the region. His group of jihadist elders has been hollowed out, and many of its former supporters grew either suspicious of its links to countries like Iran or frustrated with its inability to lead.
Over the years, his pompous public statements became something of a morbid comedy even within extremist circles. In 2018, he issued a strongly worded threat to al Qaeda’s former franchise in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, promising to unleash ferocious, lion-like men who would destroy the group if it did not reverse its decision to officially cut ties with his group and rebrand as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Within a year of that threat, the Syrian group he threatened waged a series of campaigns against whatever remained of his loyalists, and those ferocious men were wiped out of Syria. A year after that, he threatened that the Qaeda base in Syria, then significantly weakened by former allies, was about to rise again, citing an exploded truck in the middle of nowhere in Raqqa as evidence of that supposed resurgence. The group is now nonexistent in both Iraq and Syria, once its heartlands. What a track record for a genius and shrewd leader, right?
As he delivered those remarks, endless ink was spilled in think tank and media circles about the significance of his words and the “strategy” of the group to rise again in Iraq and Syria before it could prepare for a global jihad against the West. The patterns of a weakening and increasingly irrelevant group were clear for years, but the headlines about a down-but-not-out jihadist group persisted.
This assessment about al Qaeda is not limited to Zawahiri and his abilities. Even if the group were to have a charismatic leader tuned into the realities of the Middle East and the wider region, jihadism has changed significantly in the past decade, arguably in irreversible ways, coming full circle a year ago: What started in Afghanistan and elsewhere as local militant movements dedicated to fighting invading forces or local enemies were derailed by internationalists like Osama bin Laden and later Zawahiri who wanted to wage a global war against the West in the 1990s, before these militant movements started to focus locally again in the past decade or so. The Taliban’s stunning takeover of Afghanistan was not a catalyst moment that made Sunni insurgents realize that local fighting could pay off more than the wars that the Bin Ladenists waged and that only brought destruction and misery to Sunni communities across the Middle East. The Taliban’s win only vindicated an already growing trend within the world of jihadism. It is these trends that are usually absent from the analytical focus on individuals and their relevance.
Even the organization most committed to international terrorism, the Islamic State group, has been made to focus on rebuilding at the local level, unable and potentially unwilling to focus on international terrorism against the West. It, too, is returning to the way it conducted jihad in Iraq before the war in Syria happened, providing it with an opportunity to gain the support of the largest cluster of foreign jihadists since the Iraq war in 2003 and the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s, which also drove it to claim the mantle of international jihad when it came into confrontation with al Qaeda in 2013 and 2014.
Indeed, that local focus is the lesson of the Taliban, and before it, the lesson of Iranian-backed militias across the region. Aside from anti-Western rhetoric, the Taliban and Iran’s allies have been pragmatic enough to focus on the local fights. Bin Laden may be revered by the radicals, but even the most unhinged recognize not only that his tactics achieved nothing but also that they came with considerable costs, including allowing the pro-Iran camp to take over multiple Arab capitals. Those who focused on fighting the West, such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State, lost, while those who focused on dominating the local scene prospered. Losing to local enemies can be more profoundly maddening and galvanizing than losing to the West, and it will likely be a while before we fully see how that dynamic will define the future of jihadism and militancy in the region.
As I often find out, these conclusions about the state of jihadism today are typically more readily accepted in the region, including by extremists, than in Western capitals. Analysts point to previous predictions about al Qaeda’s demise being proven wrong over and over, such as in 2011 with the democratic grassroots uprisings of the Arab Spring and in 2014 with the rise of a more extreme alternative in the Islamic State. But really, I wonder, when were these forecasts wrong? Was it after 2011, when popular uprisings across the region gave a new life to jihadism? That resurgence happened after the killing of Bin Laden in 2011, so it would sound compelling on the face of it. Or was it 2014, when the former al Qaeda branch in Iraq, the Islamic State, embarrassed the Obama administration because of the 2011 withdrawal, which left a void that was gradually filled by the group, eventually taking over a third of Iraq and half of Syria? These two premises are flawed, and I say this as someone who once used them to make similar arguments about the resilience of jihadism.
When jihadist groups seemed on the rise in multiple countries in 2013 and 2014, forecasts about al Qaeda’s demise in 2011 seemed shortsighted and embarrassing. But they were not completely wrong, in retrospect. Al Qaeda was indeed on the way out. What may have appeared as a resurgence for al Qaeda after the popular uprisings and the death of Bin Laden in 2011 blurred a deeper truth: The local trends that would cause the demise of al Qaeda and make it obsolete created an illusion that al Qaeda was still powerful — because jihadists pretended and outsiders assumed that various groups in the region still answered to it. When the dust settled and new realities emerged after several years, the reality of al Qaeda became apparent. Al Qaeda under Zawahiri could not keep its own branches, much less grow and steer the ship of jihad. Besides permanently losing the key branches in Iraq and Syria, al Qaeda branches in Yemen and Africa pledged publicly that they would not allow their terrain to be used for attacks against the West. Such pledges were dictated by local imperatives, even if they had the Qaeda stamp of approval. Even in internal memos meant for new recruits, groups like Jabhat al-Nusra taught that the Bin Laden way was no longer relevant to the current realities.
Of course, all that can still mean that al Qaeda died only after it contributed to the expansion of the jihadist movement, from scattered individuals to groups operating in different parts of the region. That contribution does not usually count for the existence of these local insurgent movements before there was al Qaeda, and even Bin Laden, and it is these older roots that will determine the future of jihadism. Al Qaeda and its international jihad could prove to be an aberration in this broader reality.
Of course, al Qaeda could still forget the lessons it learned and attempt another “spectacular” attack against the West or the United States. And events in the region, beyond America’s control, have a way of remolding jihadist franchises. See, for instance, the ongoing war between the Islamic State and the Taliban. But al Qaeda in 2022 is not al Qaeda in 2001, nor is it al Qaeda in 2011. Outbid in extremism by the Islamic State, penetrated by agents and informants of Western intelligence services, and now a franchise led by middle-aged or geriatric veterans of old wars, its ability to strike at the “far enemy” is severely truncated. And most of the rank and file are fine with that.
Zawahiri’s successor will not be able to change this reality, to bring al Qaeda to its heyday, no matter how charismatic he might be. Zawahiri lived in the shadow of Bin Laden, and jihadists deferred to him because of that, and that will be harder for his successor to do, especially if he is living in Iran, as reports indicate. Jihadists eulogized his death because, to them, he was just an old man living his last days hiding somewhere. In this sense, his killing in Kabul, among “the mujahedeen,” will make some extremists sympathize with him, but that will not change his legacy. They will move on, as should those who study every move of jihadist leaders.
The obsession over individuals like Zawahiri, instead of the realities on the ground, is at the heart of why the counterterrorism field has become a wasteful industry. Every silence or absence from a jihadist leader becomes “strategic.” Every terrorist attack, however minor, is added to a graphic about “the trajectory” of a group. Every video is analyzed in great detail and probably watched more by analysts than by jihadists. When I remarked about the latter, a senior jihadist leader who eulogized Zawahiri after his death laughed. (Many of those eulogizing him in public statements after his death were previously mocking him in private). I didn’t mean that as a joke, but he found it both funny and true.