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The death of Al-Qaeda chief Al-Zawahiri and the future of Al-Qaeda Security Brief.

Updated: Dec 29, 2020

Week of December 14 | Issue 14



Team: CENTCOM

Aimee Hanstein


Date: October - November 2020

Location: Ghazni, Afghanistan

Parties involved: Ayman Al-Zawahiri; Al-Qaeda; Afghanistan; Pakistan

The event: It is rumored that Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the chief of Al-Qaeda has died of natural causes in Ghazni, Afghanistan. It is unknown when exactly he did as his death has not been confirmed by any Al-Qaeda officials, it is suggested he passed away sometime in October or November. Journalist and veteran jihadi-watcher Hassan Hassan tweeted of the death stating “Ayman Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda leader & Osama bin Laden successor, died a month ago of natural causes in his domicile. What seems to be confirmed so far, from overwhelming & separate sources, is that Zawahiri was at least seriously ill. He vanished, which could be that he's in hiding and completely off the grid as he occasionally does. But his best source still insists he died”. Hassan Hassan also tweeted that he realizes the issue with such claims but it was corroborated with sources close to AQ.[1] Though all reports state natural causes were the reasoning for his death, some reports do not specify, some say his asthma got the best of him since he had no formal treatment. [2] These reports came at the same time Abu Muhammad al-Masri, another very senior Al-Qaeda leader, was killed in Tehran, reportedly by Israeli Mossad agents at the direction of the United States. [3]

The implications:

  • Zawahiri came to power following the death of Osama bin Laden. Zawahiri was very different from bin Laden, he is old and tends to repeat himself in long-winded and meandering speeches. Zawahiri is different from bin Laden due to being restrained in his operational strategy and has had a different management style to bin Laden. Zawahiri has advocated for a less flashy role of Al-Qaeda and believes in the preservation of the jihadi vanguard, he believes this can be done through unity and careful politics. This method is very different from that of the Islamic State and is an approach that is unappealing to younger would-be jihadists.[4] Zawahiri has also been more focused on near, local enemies rather than further ones, reducing the amount of transnational terrorism Al-Qaeda participates in. Whoever succeeds him, will be stuck in the balancing act of continuing Zawahiri’s strategy or going back to a bin Laden strategy. While Al-Qaeda has not been able to conduct the types of attacks they did under bin Laden, they have maintained a strong relationship with the Afghan Taliban and maintained other relationships with key affiliates around the world, all while being able to avoid destruction by the US.

  • Alternative futures include the possibility that Zawahiri’s successor will be more like bin Laden and go back to focusing on transnational terrorism, especially given the death of al-Masri by Israeli agents (reportedly directed by the US). Given their rise of influence in Africa, Al-Qaeda may recruit affiliates from the region to carry out attacks transnationally. The alternative is that Zawahiri’s successor follows in his footsteps and maintains a level-headed moderate approach. Because Al-Qaeda has not fallen into the recruitment styles like the Islamic State, this is probable. Given that Al-Qaeda has a strong connection to Saudi Arabia and that Saudi Arabia is beginning to have closer ties to Israel, Al-Qaeda may take a step back from the US and Israel. It is also possible that Al-Qaeda will try to mirror the Taliban and become a political party (or is waiting for post-peace-talks to do so). Given Al-Qaeda’s more patient and thought out strategy of building a network lately, this is possible.



[1] Tweet from Hassan Hassan. Twitter. November 2020 https://twitter.com/hxhassan/status/1328378494611492865?s=20

[2] Al-Qaeda chief Al-Zawahiri is dead. The News. November 2020

[3] The death of Ayman al-Zawahiri and the future of Al-Qaida. Brookings Institute. November 2020. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/11/17/the-death-of-ayman-al-zawahri-and-the-future-of-al-qaida/

[4] Is Ayman al-Zawahiri Really the Future of Al-Qaida? RAND Blog. September 2020. https://www.rand.org/blog/2020/09/is-ayman-al-zawahiri-really-the-future-of-al-qaida.html

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