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Commentary Al-Zawahiri’s Death and the End of Bin Laden’s Legacy

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Osama bin Laden had always admired his loyal soldiers in Yemen. In particular, he respected his secretary from the Afghan jihad years, whom he viewed as his spiritual successor, Nasser al-Wuhayshi. It was Al-Wuhayshi who took over the task of rebuilding Al-Qaeda in Yemen, before merging it with its Saudi branch to form Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Driven by an ambition to move the jihadist command center to Yemen, which he saw as an “Afghanistan with access to the sea,” Bin Laden prepared Al-Wuhayshi to be Al-Qaeda’s next leader. Convinced of his organizational abilities and charisma, Bin Laden granted Al-Wuhayshi exceptional powers, ordering other branches of Al-Qaeda to follow the example of Yemenis in adapting to their local environments, which enabled these cells to carry out numerous successful operations at home and abroad.

Bin Laden’s 2011 assassination came as a blow to the jihadist movement, and prevented the new generation of Yemeni members from climbing the organizational ladder. Instead, power passed to the Egyptian circle that had accompanied Bin Laden in Afghanistan, represented by Ayman al-Zawahiri, a political and religious theorist influenced by Sayyid Qutb. It was the Egyptians who convinced Bin Laden to transform the Afghan jihad against the Soviets into a global jihadist movement against the West. Al-Zawahiri continued to invest in group’s young Yemeni leadership and prepare it for future command. But the killing of Al-Wuhayshi in a 2015 US drone strike halted these plans in their tracks, and placed a question mark over Al-Qaeda’s plan of succession.

When Qasim al-Raymi took over as AQAP’s leader, it was expected that he would play a leading role in Al-Qaeda’s central command. But his influence was hampered by his deteriorating health and the limited room for maneuver enforced by US drone operations. At the same time, Al-Zawahiri thought the group’s fortunes could be revived in the wake of the Islamic State’s stunning success in Iraq and Syria by promoting Bin Laden’s son Hamza. Al-Zawahiri began by introducing Hamza bin Laden to jihadist circles in an audio message in 2015, extolling him as “the lion, son of the lion.” In 2017 Al-Zawahiri began to seriously consider handing over leadership of the organization, and placed Hamza at the top of the command structure, giving him a greater role in planning and propaganda. But the US responded by adding Hamza to its terrorist list, and assassinated him in 2019.

A rivalry emerged between Bin Laden’s spiritual successors in Yemen, led by AQAP leader Qasim al-Raymi, and his old comrades in the Afghan jihad, the Egyptian circle led by Ahmed Salahuddin Zeidan, also known as Saif al-Adl, or “sword of justice.” By 2019, it seemed that Al-Qaeda had three leaders: Ayman al-Zawahiri, whose influence was declining although he maintained symbolic authority as the legitimate emir of the organization; Saif Al-Adl, who was thought to manage the group’s security and administrative affairs from Tehran, where he had found refuge after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan; and Al-Raymi, still the favorite to take over despite the crises in Yemen that absorbed his attention.

Al-Zawahiri was emotionally and strategically aligned with Al-Raymi, and by the same token, Al-Raymi endorsed Al-Zawahiri as the group’s legitimate leader. Over time, however, Al-Raymi deepened his organizational and security contacts with Saif al-Adl, as the most effective and influential figure in the group. This helped turn the tide in favor of Saif al-Adl as Al-Zawahiri’s apparent successor, but the matter was resolved definitively in 2020, with Al-Raymi’s death in another US drone strike.

With the rise of Khalid Batarfi as the new AQAP leader, the bid of jihadist Yemeni youth for global leadership of the organization is finally over. Today, Al-Qaeda is firmly in the hands of the Egyptian cohort, which controls the organization’s security, financial and administrative affairs. The group is at a critical impasse in terms of strategy and organization, not least since its likely new leader is set to run the group from Iran instead of Afghanistan. In the near term, there do not appear to be immediate consequences for AQAP from Al-Zawahiri’s death, but it will do nothing to stem the internal crises faced by the Yemeni branch, the successive divisions between its senior and middle leadership and the erosion of its influence on the ground amid a general decline in popularity.