Discover more from It Can Always Get Worse
Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Life in Jihad and Al-Qaeda After His Death
Ayman al-Zawahiri, the 71-year-old emir of Al-Qaeda, was killed in an airstrike in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, on 31 July 2022—one year ago today. Al-Zawahiri’s long life involved in Islamic militancy is interesting in itself, and can tell us a lot about where the jihadist movement is and where it is trending, notably his intellectual evolution towards a more “localist” program and the clash with the Islamic State, and perhaps even more immediately—in terms of his successor as Al-Qaeda’s leader—the relationships Al-Zawahiri fostered with various States, specifically Pakistan and Iran.
It Can Always Get Worse is a reader-supported publication. To receive notification of new posts, become a free subscriber. Consider becoming a paid subscriber to access all posts.
JIHAD AT HOME
Al-Zawahiri was born in Cairo, Egypt, on 19 June 1951 to a prominent elite family: one of his great-uncles, Abdul Rahman Hassan Azzam, was the first general-secretary of the Arab League between 1945 and 1952, and his grandfather, Rabia al-Zawahiri, had been the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, once the most prestigious institution in the Sunni world before it became a drab adjunct of the military regime. Al-Zawahiri got involved with Islamic militancy early in his life, joining the Muslim Brotherhood in 1965 while he was at school, aged 14. Al-Zawahiri’s ideological devotion cannot be doubted: this was at the nadir for Egypt’s Islamists—albeit this turned out, as he had no way of knowing, to be the darkness before the dawn.
The Brotherhood and like-minded groups had welcomed the military coup in July 1952 that liquidated the gentle Western-aligned monarchy, hoping that it would lead to Islamic government. It swiftly became apparent they had miscalculated: pan-Arabism would be the creed of the new order. In 1954, the Soviet-aligned ruler, Jamal Abd al-Nasr, initiated a severe crackdown on the Brotherhood that they call the mihna (inquisition). The Brotherhood’s leading ideologue, Sayyid Qutb, was arrested at this time, accused (probably correctly) of trying to assassinate Al-Nasr. Qutb was released in May 1964, but arrested again in August 1965, accused of trying to overthrow the government. 17,000 Islamists were swept up in the 1965-66 crackdown. In August 1966, Qutb was sent to the gallows.
The Islamists, however, were on the eve of an event that would hand them victory in the struggle with the pan-Arabists. Perhaps the central organising principle of pan-Arabism was the intention to uproot the Zionist project. The Arab States tried, after the restoration of Israel in 1948, to, in the infamous phrase of the era, “throw the Jews into the sea”. They failed, but the war continued by other means, with efforts to economically suffocate the Jewish State, a cross-border terrorist campaign,1 and political warfare, notably via the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) after 1964, an instrument that would in due course pass to the Soviets. In June 1967, Al-Nasr—in collaboration with Syria and Jordan—made a play to “deal with the entire Palestine Question”. Al-Nasr’s failure was no less calamitous than 1948-49. The Israelis pre-empted the attack and pan-Arabism was shattered alongside the armies of the two radical republics, Egypt and Syria.
If Islamism was not quite born on the seventh day of the Six-Day War, it was then that it began to move into the mainstream. After the demise of the Ottoman Empire, a course had been set for reform and various ideas imported from Europe—Nazism, Communism, nationalism—were tried towards that end. All had only made things worse. The Islamist narrative that it was this ethos of foreign-inspired change that was at fault, that the answer was to return to the indigenous faith, always had its plausibility and appeal—and spoke in a language most could understand, rather than in the alien terms of imported Western ideologies. Now it appeared a verdict had been rendered from heaven.
History was breaking the Islamists’ way. In September 1970, Al-Nasr, their great tormentor, died, and his successor, Anwar al-Sadat, had bigger problems. Egypt was being colonised from within by the Soviet Union. In 1972, Al-Sadat ordered the Soviet intelligence “advisers” and troops out. In the shadow of the 1968 Soviet invasion of its dissident Czechoslovak colony, there was no guarantee the Soviets would leave. The Soviets decided to comply, but initiated an active measures campaign to destabilise Al-Sadat’s regime, including a subversion offensive through Egypt’s internal Communist activists and agents.2 To counter the Left, Al-Sadat tilted towards the Islamists: he would style himself “the Believing President”,3 and, after the Brotherhood formally renounced violence, it began various forms of cooperation with the State. Many Islamists were released from prison, including, in October 1971, Muhammad Qutb, who built on his brother’s ideas to develop concepts later taken on by the jihadi-Salafists.
This caused some splintering among the Islamists, as more radical factions broke away from the Brotherhood to form clearly anti-State organisations—some of which also received Soviet support. Probably the most powerful of these groups at the time was the Islamic Group (Jamaat al-Islamiyya). Another, which Al-Zawahiri joined in 1973, was Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ). The Jamaat and EIJ were rivals to an extent, though they often collaborated. Umar Abdurrahman, “the Blind Shaykh”, would become firmly associated with the Jamaat a decade later, but in the mid-1970s the nature of these networks made his allegiances rather more fluid and, even after the 1980s, EIJ set great store by Abdurrahman as a spiritual guide.
The Islamic Revolution in Iran reached its crescendo in late 1978, right as Al-Sadat was signing the peace accords that made Egypt the first Arab State to recognise Israel. Unwilling to shed blood to save his throne, the Shah left his country in January 1979 and in March 1980—after a grisly international journey—settled in Egypt; four months later he was dead. If the Six-Day War lit the touchpaper, the Shah’s fall kindled Islamism into a blaze: the seemingly most powerful ruler in the region—the one most unapologetically aligned to the West and Israel—had been brought down and replaced with an Islamist regime. The dream was possible.
The Islamists in Iran had been assisted by Soviet-run Communists during the Revolution and afterwards. For a time, some even thought the Red would triumph over the Black. By 1983, Ayatollah Khomeini ruled supreme, having destroyed his main Islamist rival, the even-more radical Mojahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), and the various organised Leftist factions. The Marxist inflection in Khomeini’s Revolution remained, however, visible in the way it cast itself as a movement on behalf of the mostazafin (oppressed). The other key part of this was its non-sectarianism: Khomeini was Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic; in time, it was hoped, the Sunnis would see their error. Pending that, the Shi’a clergy would work with Sunni militants to export their Revolution.4 Al-Zawahiri became a “poster boy” for Iran’s revolutionary clergy. The relationship Al-Zawahiri forged with Tehran four decades ago lasted throughout his lifetime. Sometimes the mutual admiration was even public.
In October 1981, the Islamists that Al-Sadat had given space to struck him down. “I have killed Pharaoh”, announced Al-Sadat’s murderer, Khaled al-Islambuli. “I am not afraid to die.” And die he would, shot by a firing squad in April 1982. The Iranian regime named a street in its capital after Al-Islambuli, celebrating him as a “martyr”.5 Al-Islambuli was a member of EIJ and had been assisted in getting to Al-Sadat by a colonel in his retinue, Abud al-Zumar, the first leader of EIJ. Al-Zawahiri was arrested in the dragnet that followed Al-Sadat’s assassination, which rounded up hundreds of Islamists. Al-Zawahiri was not charged with conspiring in the murder itself; he was convicted of weapons charges. When Al-Zawahiri was released in 1984, in his early 30s, he left Egypt and would never return.
JIHAD ON THE ROAD
In December 1979, the Soviet Union conquered Afghanistan and installed a puppet Communist regime. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency used the Mujahideen groups it had created from Afghan Islamists a half-decade earlier to run an insurgency against the Soviet occupation.6 By 1982, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia began sponsoring the Afghan anti-Soviet resistance,7 but this was channelled through Pakistan’s ISI, which empowered its own assets, above all Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the most radical of the Islamists, whose ideology later fed into the global jihad movement.8
In 1984, a Palestinian shaykh, Abdullah Azzam, issued a fatwa calling on all Muslims to fight the Soviets, and it provoked the first major foreign fighter flow, mostly of Arabs, to Afghanistan. Azzam created the Services Bureau (al-Maktab al-Khidamat), funded most significantly by Usama bin Laden, to facilitate this movement of foreigners. The “Arab-Afghans” did not receive direct State support for the simple reason that they were not an important military force in fighting the Soviet occupation: about 2,000 Arabs total (400 at any one time) were in Afghanistan amidst a Mujahideen force of perhaps a quarter-million.9 Al-Zawahiri in his memoir is furious at the idea that the U.S. gave “one penny” to the Arab-Afghans.10 The three battles in the late 1980s where the Arab-Afghans had a noteworthy contribution were military failures, but politically raised the profile of the Arab-Afghans,11 and the politics among the Arab-Afghans was to have global significance.
In October 1986, Bin Laden created a military camp, the Lion’s Den of Supporters (al-Masada al-Ansar), which many simply called “the military base” (al-Qaeda al-Askariyya). It was out of the bureaucratic structures for the Masada camp that Al-Qaeda emerges around the spring of 1987: initially, “Al-Qaeda” referred to the camp and quickly evolved into a synonym for the people associated with the camp, a group of Arab fighters operating as something like a special forces unit.12 While Masada was to a degree established deliberately in isolation, physically and culturally, from the broader Mujahideen insurgency,13 it had deep ties to some Mujahideen factions—above all the Haqqanis—that were very close to Pakistan’s ISI.14
In this period, the Arab-Afghans were diverging. Al-Zawahiri believed in the legitimacy of takfir (excommunicating Muslims), especially against Arab rulers, in contrast to Azzam’s pan-Islamism that opposed all Muslim-on-Muslim violence. The degree to which Al-Zawahiri was influencing Bin Laden in the late 1980s might be overstated,15 but Azzam was certainly losing influence.16 As the Soviets wound down in Afghanistan in 1988, Azzam wanted to redirect the energy from the Afghan jihad to Palestine, for a war to eliminate Israel, an alien occupying power in his conception. Al-Zawahiri had a different script in mind: he wanted to separate the Arab-Afghans from even indirect allegiance with Muslim governments and have them war against the regime in Cairo, believing jihad should lead to the founding of a caliphate, starting in Egypt, “the heart of the Islamic world”.17 The contest between Al-Zawahiri and Azzam ended as decisively as it dramatically in November 1989, when Azzam was killed in a highly public, highly mysterious bombing in Peshawar. The perpetrator remains unknown, but Al-Zawahiri is on the suspects list.
1991 was an important year in the development of Al-Qaeda. At the beginning of the year, the U.S.-led coalition—for once without Soviet opposition—reversed the annexation of Kuwait by Saddam Husayn’s Iraq. The Saudi government rejected Bin Laden’s call to “fight [Saddam] with faith” (his motley force of Arab-Afghans),18 and in April 1991 Bin Laden left Saudi Arabia for the last time, moving to Pakistan.19 The same year, Al-Zawahiri took over EIJ, which was now less a group than a dispersed network of Egyptian militants abroad. And at the end of the year, the Soviet Union collapsed. For the jihadists, this was their victory, and the Soviet demise was the destruction of the more dangerous of the two infidel superpowers; dealing with America, made soft by self-indulgence and decadence of all kinds, would be comparatively easy. “Hit them and they will run”, Bin Laden repeatedly said, citing the U.S. abandoning South Vietnam and Beirut after the Iran/Hizballah bombing of the Marine barracks in October 1983. Somalia would be added to the list after the U.S. withdrew from there in 1993.
Bin Laden arrived in Sudan in December 1991,20 travelling from Afghanistan. Bin Laden had first been invited to Sudan by Hassan al-Turabi, the Muslim Brotherhood cleric who was the power behind the throne, soon after the military coup by Islamist officers in June 1989.21 Bin Laden had not immediately taken the offer but had cultivated relations with Al-Turabi and begun setting up Sudan as a node in Al-Qaeda’s network. In 1990, “agents of Bin Laden began to buy property in Sudan”.22 When Al-Turabi went to Jordan in October 1990 to show support for Saddam, two months after Saddam had occupied and annexed Kuwait, Al-Turabi’s entourage included Bin Laden emissaries who established contact with Saddam’s regime. In 1991, Saddam returned the favour, reaching out to Al-Qaeda through Sudan. Once Bin Laden was in Sudan, Al-Qaeda became fully intertwined with the Islamist regime, providing resources for its civil war against the Christians in the south, in exchange for Al-Qaeda receiving safe haven and the amenities of a State, like passports.
Al-Zawahiri was not “formally” a member of Al-Qaeda at this time, and was still, as emir of EIJ, a leading proponent of the “near enemy” school of jihad: direct war with the Muslim regimes to establish Islamist emirates that could link up into a caliphate. Bin Laden was moving towards the “far enemy” strategy, the idea that a global war against the American-led West was needed first, to push it out of the Middle East, because only then could Islamic revolutions locally succeed. The distinction between the “near enemy” and “far enemy” camps was never as sharp as all that, though, demonstrated by Al-Zawahiri acting as Bin Laden’s roving ambassador in the first half of the 1990s and the training Al-Qaeda gave to “near enemy”-focused jihadists in the Afghan camps later in the decade.23
Al-Zawahiri, had made a trip to Tehran in April 1991 to gain financial support and training for an Islamic revolution in Egypt. Probably in early 1992, via Al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden met with Imad Mughniya, the officer of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in military control of Hizballah in Lebanon, to arrange for Al-Qaeda jihadists to receiving training. This Al-Zawahiri-facilitated meeting was the start of an ever-deepening relationship between Al-Qaeda and Iran that lasts to this day. Also in 1992, Al-Zawahiri met with Saddam’s foreign intelligence chief, Faruq Hijazi, in Khartoum, beginning a “highly secretive relationship with Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and later with Al-Qaeda”. Contact was maintained between EIJ/Al-Qaeda and Saddam’s Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) through Hijazi in Sudan up to 1995, with additional meetings in Pakistan, and occasional visits by Al-Qaeda and affiliated jihadists to Baghdad, including Al-Zawahiri, who went to the Iraqi capital in 1992 to meet Saddam himself.
The fact that Sudan in the 1990s acted as a nexus for Al-Qaeda and its jihadist allies with two notorious State-sponsors of anti-American terrorism, Saddam’s Iraq and Clerical Iran, was well-known even in public discourse, though it would later be “forgotten” that everyone knew this when political imperatives shifted.
Al-Zawahiri arrived in Bosnia as early as September 1992,24 and would cycle in and out of the country over the next three-and-a-half years as part of the foreign jihadist contingent that was heavily inflected with Al-Qaeda operatives. In Bosnia, Al-Zawahiri worked closely with Iran, which trained and utilised the jihadists in the war, and embedded itself in the security apparatus of the Sarajevo government. The expanding web of jihadist connections and Iran’s assistance meant the Bosnian war helped Al-Qaeda go truly global.
In Yemen, Bin Laden’s ancestral homeland, Al-Qaeda would fail to incite an Islamic revolution, but laid down infrastructure that served it as a logistics hub. This, too, was assisted by Iran, which had created its own Islamic revolutionary clone in Yemen on the Hizballah model, Ansarallah (a.k.a. the Huthis).25 The key operative for Al-Qaeda’s establishment in Yemen was a senior official of Al-Zawahiri’s EIJ, Ibrahim al-Banna (Abu Ayman al-Masri),26 who went to Yemen,27 probably in 1993, under instructions from Al-Zawahiri and Al-Qaeda’s then-military emir, Ali Amin al-Rashidi (Abu Ubayda al-Panjshiri), who had just spent ten months in Yemen. Al-Zawahiri personally visited Yemen in 1994 to check on Al-Banna’s progress. Al-Banna set about forging relationships with local jihadist leaders and tribes, and worked closely with the IRGC’s Ansarallah, acquiring weapons and other forms of support to smuggle operatives into Saudi Arabia, seeding the networks that Al-Qaeda used to launch a jihadist revolt in the Kingdom from 2003 to 2005.28 The beaten Saudi Al-Qaeda operatives would retreat to Yemen and merge with their Yemeni network to form Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the third of Al-Qaeda’s “affiliates”, Al-Banna having helped set up the first in Iraq that we now know as the Islamic State.29 Al-Banna remains AQAP’s security and intelligence chief, and AQAP retains its relationship with Ansarallah/Iran.
In May 1996, Bin Laden had been expelled from Sudan, under American pressure, and moved to Afghanistan, where the ISI had switched to the Taliban, after tiring of the Mujahideen, as its favoured instrument for colonising the country. Bin Laden came to a similar arrangement with the Taliban regime as he had in Sudan, only with deeper foundations, practically and ideologically: Bin Laden pledged allegiance (bay’a) to Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Umar as Commander of the Faithful (Emir al-Mumineen). The U.S. had miscalculated in having Bin Laden forced out of Sudan. It transpired to be more advantageous for Al-Qaeda to be in Afghanistan.
There were two other major jihadi hotspots in the mid-1990s into which Al-Qaeda inserted itself, in Algeria and Chechnya. Al-Zawahiri’s trip to Chechnya, in southern Russia, in December 1996, is one of the strangest episodes in the history of the jihadi-Salafist movement. Al-Zawahiri was arrested soon after his arrival, alongside Ahmad Salama Mabruk (Abu Faraj al-Masri) and Mahmud Hisham al-Hennawi, and imprisoned until May 1997. Al-Zawahiri was then let go and allowed to continue his work among the jihadists in the Caucasus, before rendezvousing with Bin Laden in Afghanistan. The Russian claim that it only later learned Al-Zawahiri’s identity is not credible. Moscow had surely come across Al-Zawahiri in the 1970s, when it was covertly supporting EIJ against Al-Sadat, and would definitely have known Al-Zawahiri by the time he was making a spectacle of himself as a prisoner in 1982. If the FSB, the KGB’s successor, had not recognised Al-Zawahiri by sight, it likely would have learned it in interrogation. Al-Zawahiri had broken under torture in his Egyptian prison and the Russians made large-scale use of torture in their Chechen war; the threat might have been enough. Defectors have given accounts of the game the Russians were playing with Al-Zawahiri in 1996-97, but we will probably now never know the truth.
MOVING TO GLOBAL JIHAD
Al-Qaeda had been linked to terrorist attacks against the West earlier in the 1990s—the hotel bombings in Yemen in December 1992, the first World Trade Centre attack in New York in February 1993, in Somalia during the “Black Hawk down” incident in October 1993, the foiled 9/11 precursor “Bojinka plot” in January 1995, and the bombing against U.S. servicemen in Saudi Arabia in November 1995—but it was only after Al-Zawahiri’s Russian sojourn that he got on board with the “far enemy” strategy. Bin Laden had issued his first fatwa declaring jihad against American in August 1996 and in February 1998 issued a second fatwa—by some accounts “encouraged” by Al-Zawahiri30—that declared all-out war against Americans and Jews globally. The 1998 statement was inter alia signed by Al-Zawahiri and Rifai Taha (Abu Yasser al-Masri), then-operational head of the Jamaat since “the Blind Shaykh” was in prison.
The bombing of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998, which killed two-hundred people, made Al-Qaeda a household name, at least in Western security circles. Al-Zawahiri was personally implicated in the atrocities. The support of the Iranian regime had been important in making the East Africa Embassy bombings possible and now Tehran was sure that Al-Qaeda meant business in its war with America, the relationship only deepened.
By 1998, Iran was not the only actor intensifying its interest in the increasingly lethal Al-Qaeda: Saddam was, too. Whether or not Bin Laden himself had gone to Iraq in January 1998, in February 1998—three weeks before the fatwa declaring war on America and Jews—Al-Zawahiri had gone to Baghdad again, meeting Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan “to arrange for coordination between Iraq and bin Laden”: there was talk of establishing training camps for Al-Qaeda on Iraqi territory and Al-Zawahiri was given $300,000.31 By February 1998, the U.S. and Saddam were several months into a showdown that seemed likely to end with a U.S. invasion to depose Saddam. Saddam was ultimately rescued by Kofi Annan of the United Nations, but the danger never completely passed—the Senate voted unanimously to make it official U.S. policy to remove Saddam from power in October 1998—and Al-Qaeda was clearly viewed as a handy potential instrument for retaliation. In March 1998, two separate Al-Qaeda envoys went to Saddam’s Iraq,32 one of them spending more than two weeks in Baghdad. At least one of the March 1998 meetings was “apparently arranged through … Zawahiri, who had ties of his own to the Iraqis” [italics added], and it seems to have been Al-Zawahiri who arranged for a Saddamist “delegation” to visit Afghanistan in July 1998 to meet, “first with the Taliban and then with Bin Laden”.33 (Saddam and the Taliban also had independent relations.) The Saddam-Al-Qaeda relationship became important in late 1998 as Al-Qaeda’s relations with the Taliban faltered.
After the August 1996 fatwa, Taliban emir Mullah Umar, partly under pressure from Saudi Arabia, one of only three States to recognise the Taliban government, had asked Bin Laden to cease public incitement against America and generally keep a low profile.34 Bin Laden clearly ignored this, for example giving an interview to Peter Arnett of CNN in March 1997, where Bin Laden infamously threatened America live on television, and after the Embassy bombings in August 1998 Bin Laden did another media blitz claiming responsibility, ensuring that retaliatory strikes fell on Taliban Afghanistan. The IIS station in Iraq’s Pakistan Embassy became Saddam’s “point of contact with Al-Qaeda” by late 1998. Two IIS officers went into Afghanistan in December 1998 to meet Bin Laden, Al-Zawahiri, and Mullah Umar. Later in the month, shortly after President Bill Clinton ordered the bombing campaign (Operation DESERT FOX) against Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) infrastructure, Hijazi, by this point Iraq’s ambassador in Turkey, also journeyed to Afghanistan to meet Bin Laden. Hijazi returned for another visit in January 1999. What is most interesting, especially in retrospect, is that these 1998-99 moves in the Saddam-Qaeda relationship were all reported in real time in Western newspapers that denied any such relationship existed three years later.
The culmination of Saddam’s interplay with Al-Qaeda was a proposal in early 1999 for Bin Laden and his organisation, including Al-Zawahiri, to move to Iraq. The U.S. was especially trepidatious about Bin Laden taking shelter under Saddam’s roof because it would have made U.S. plans to kill the Al-Qaeda leader—then at their height—impossible. The U.S. was in a catch-22, however, because if it operationalised an assassination mission against Bin Laden, this would be discovered by Pakistan, which would detect the U-2 flights needed to locate Bin Laden before airstrikes were launched, and the ISI would then tip-off Bin Laden, triggering his move to Iraq before any bombing run could take place—putting him out of the U.S.’s reach.35 This limbo created by the Pakistanis persisted essentially up to 9/11.
Bin Laden ultimately decided not to take the Iraqi offer and patched things up with the Taliban, agreeing to cease his media appearances: this was partly under criticism from senior Arab jihadist figures like Muhammad al-Bahaya (Abu Khalid al-Suri) and Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (Abu Musab al-Suri), partly because 9/11 was in the works and he needed less American attention, and partly because the U.S. strikes on Afghanistan after the Embassy bombings had, unbeknownst to everyone at the time, reconciled the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, becoming “a rallying point for defiance of America and shut off Taliban discussion of expelling the militants”. The Taliban had never been opposed to anti-American terrorism; they had told Bin Laden he was quite at liberty to “fight America”, but they had insisted he should “do so without much talk and shouting from our lands”.36 Bin Laden finally did as he was told. In October 2000, Al-Qaeda carried out its last major pre-9/11 attack, blowing up an American warship, the U.S.S. Cole, in the Aden harbour, killing seventeen servicemen: Bin Laden was nowhere to be seen—and nor was any American response.
Al-Zawahiri was involved in the efforts Al-Qaeda made to construct WMD in Afghanistan in 2000-01, including acting as a link for the recruitment of experts from Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) in Indonesia, led by Al-Qaeda operative Riduan Isamuddin, born Encep Nurjaman, and universally known as “Hambali”.37 (There was an Iraq dimension to this story, too, around Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, which later became the subject of much controversy.)
AL-ZAWAHIRI AND 9/11
The architect of the 9/11 plot was Khaled Shaykh Muhammad (KSM), a Pakistani citizen, who had been involved in the Mujahideen war against the Soviets and the Bosnian jihad. KSM had then been involved in various Islamist terrorist plots across the world. KSM was the uncle of the lead conspirator in the World Trade Centre attack in 1993, Ramzi Yusef, with whom he had planned the Bojinka operation,38 which also involved Hambali. In January 1996, KSM moved to Afghanistan, establishing contact with Al-Qaeda’s military chief, Muhammad Atef (Abu Hafs al-Masri), and through Atef attained a meeting with Bin Laden soon after he arrived in Afghanistan months later, where “KSM presented the Al-Qaeda leader with a menu of ideas for terrorist operations”.39 At this first meeting, KSM proposed the “Planes Operation” that would become 9/11. Bin Laden listened “without much comment” and asked KSM to join Al-Qaeda and move his family to Afghanistan.40 KSM refused to give bay’a to Bin Laden and left his family in Iran, moving them to Pakistan in January 1997.41 Contact waned between KSM and Bin Laden through 1997, but, after the East African Embassy bombings, KSM got back in touch with Bin Laden and “sometime in late 1998 or early 1999”, Bin Laden gave the “green light” for the 9/11 operation.42
The 9/11 plot was an “off-the-books operation” within Al-Qaeda: the executive body, the Consultation Council (Majlis al-Shura), was kept in the dark.43 Only three people—Bin Laden, KSM, and Atef—“developed [the] initial list of targets”.44 Al-Zawahiri was the next to be brought into the plot,45 tasked with trying to find “potential sponsors in the Gulf”.46 (It had been inter alia a lack of money that had made Bin Laden hesitant about the “Planes Operation” when KSM first proposed it in 1996.)
While KSM never would formally join Al-Qaeda, Al-Zawahiri did, merging EIJ with Bin Laden’s outfit in June 2001. There are two notable things about this. First, EIJ’s sense of itself as a “national-revolutionary” group remained strong enough that a large section refused to follow Al-Zawahiri and split away. Second, the merger primarily served as an attempt to stack the Shura so Bin Laden could gain its retrospective approval for 9/11. Six of the nine Shura seats were held by EIJ members loyal to Al-Zawahiri when Bin Laden revealed his plan to attack America to it on 27 June 2001, though it never actually came to a vote: the discussion exposed so much dissent, even among the Egyptians, that Bin Laden declared “the matter had already been decided” and ended the meeting.47
At 8:46 on the morning of 11 September 2001, Al-Qaeda smashed a plane into the North Tower of the World Trade Centre. By just after 10:00, planes had struck the South Tower and the Pentagon, and Flight 93 was brought down by a passenger revolt near Shanksville in Pennsylvania. Half-an-hour later, the Twin Towers were a heap of rubble. 3,000 people were dead and 25,000 had been wounded.
The U.S. demanded the perpetrators, specifically Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri,48 be handed over, and the Taliban, encouraged by Pakistan, decided it would rather give up its regime than surrender Bin Laden to the Americans. On 7 October 2001, the U.S. began the invasion of Afghanistan. Atef was killed in mid-November 2001, the first major scalp of the War on Terror. Shortly afterwards, Al-Zawahiri “favourite” wife, Azza Ahmed Nuwair, was killed in an airstrike, along with two of his children, a source of personal bitterness against the Americans that Al-Zawahiri has repeatedly made reference to.
Cornered at Tora Bora, Al-Qaeda was rescued by Pakistan and Iran: the Pakistanis drew away their troops, intended to prevent escape as the Americans closed in, for a confrontation with India, and the Iranians deputised Hekmatyar—who had put himself in the service of the IRGC after the ISI discarded him for the Taliban—to bring Al-Qaeda’s military and religious leadership, and Bin Laden’s family, to safety within Iran.
Bin Laden kept on the move over the next four years, reportedly first basing himself in Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan, where he met Iranian agents in Shegal to enquire about recovering his family from Iran and sometimes slipping over the border to Karachi,49 before moving into the north-western tribal areas of Pakistan, cycling through towns like Shangla,50 Haripur, and ultimately settling in the compound where he was found in Abbottabad in August 2005.51 Pakistan would play dumb about the Qaeda presence in Abbottabad in 2011, but, in 2004, no less a person than then-Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf, wrote in his memoir that he knew of a network of Al-Qaeda safehouses in the town, one of which contained “someone important in Al-Qaeda”. After KSM was arrested in a CIA-led operation in March 2003 in Rawalpindi, near the Pakistani capital, in the home of a senior official of one the ISI-supported political parties, Jamaat-e-Islami, he was replaced as head of external operations by Mustafa al-Uzaybi (Abu Faraj al-Libi). The ISI has publicly acknowledged searching a house in Abbottabad looking for Al-Uzaybi as early as 2003 and Al-Uzaybi was eventually captured in Mardan, a town two hours west of Abbottabad, not far from the old Arab-Afghan “capital” of Peshawar.
For much of the last twenty years, Al-Zawahiri’s “whereabouts [have] … been a mystery”. The one reasonably solid lead on Al-Zawahiri’s hideout came after Al-Uzaybi disclosed in custody that shortly beforehand he had met with Al-Zawahiri in Damadola in the Bajaur area of what was then the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), now the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in north-west Pakistan. One of the first U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan targeted Al-Zawahiri in Damadola in January 2006 during what was believed to be a meeting with Faqir Muhammad, the deputy leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or “Pakistani” Taliban after its official announcement in 2007. How close the U.S. got to Al-Zawahiri that day is contested. The main takeaway from the incident was how intimately tied TTP is to Al-Qaeda and by extension the rest of the ISI network that includes the “Afghan” Taliban and the so-called Haqqani Network.52 Making the point in a different way, a lot of circumstantial evidence over the years points to Al-Zawahiri having been under TTP protection in eastern Afghanistan. There was a claim around 2016 that Al-Zawahiri had “shifted his permanent base to Iran”.53 This was evidently untrue: a visit, perhaps even an extended one, is certainly possible—a Taliban leader was killed in the same period returning to Pakistan from Iran—but he clearly did not stay there.
LEADING AL-QAEDA: REBELLION FROM WITHOUT AND FROM WITHIN
Al-Zawahiri was named as Al-Qaeda’s new emir on 16 June 2011, six weeks after the U.S. Navy SEALs caught up with Bin Laden. The organization Al-Zawahiri took over was an international network very different to the special forces-type outfit Bin Laden founded in 1987. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Al-Qaeda had expanded beyond its military assistance mission for the Arab-Afghans in Afghanistan to provide such services to local insurgencies abroad, recognising some of these as branches or “affiliates” under a system it called “Al-Qalim”. The first branch in 2004 was Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQM), which had a complicated relationship with Al-Qaeda Central (AQC) after 2006 until AQM was cast out by Al-Zawahiri in 2014 and renamed itself the Islamic State (IS). In 2006, with help from the IS movement’s founder Ahmad al-Khalayleh (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi), the Qaedaist remnants of the terrifying war against Algeria’s Soviet-model regime were restructured into Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In 2009, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was formed, and the jihadist insurgency in Somalia had been under AQC’s command since at least this time, but Bin Laden advised Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen to keep its allegiance secret, which it did until 2012.
Al-Zawahiri took over amid the “Arab Spring”. Tunisia’s autocrat had been put to flight and in Egypt the crowds had done what Al-Zawahiri had been trying to do for thirty years, bringing down Al-Sadat’s dutiful successor, Hosni Mubarak, who was once described as “a civil servant with the rank of president”. Yemen’s long-time ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh had nearly been shelled out of office and Libya was in full-scale rebellion against Colonel Muamar al-Qaddafi, which NATO had stepped in to assist. Al-Zawahiri’s first released speech as leader, however, in late July 2011, focused Syria, at that time four months into a generally peaceful uprising that had been met with pitiless brutality by Bashar al-Asad’s regime, assisted by Iran. Al-Zawahiri encouraged Syrians to adopt the way of jihad and not to look to the U.S. for support. It was to be events in Syria that more than any other shaped Al-Zawahiri’s tenure as Al-Qaeda’s emir.
Some took the view that “the Arab Spring has simply overwhelmed the world of the jihadists.” Unfortunately, this was not so. The breakdown of States and the outbreak of civil wars allowed Al-Qaeda space and opportunities to expand. Bin Laden had been musing on renaming Al-Qaeda before his death, and in the post-Arab Spring phase the group half-heartedly did this, using the name “Ansar al-Shari’a” in many places. In Yemen, AQAP made three attempts to create local emirates: shorter-lived efforts in 2011 and 2013, and—after the coup by the IRGC’s Huthis and their rapid jihad conquered vast swathes of the country—a more successful effort for a year in 2015-16 in Mukalla that ended effectively in withdrawal, rather than defeat. Al-Qaeda embedded in Libya after Qaddafi, notoriously murdering the U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi in September 2012, and was concurrently occupying northern Mali, from which it was removed by French intervention in early 2013. In Somalia, Al-Shabab’s fortunes have waxed and waned, but the group remains powerful in the southern and rural zones, while intermittently challenging the nominal State in its one area of serious control, the capital Mogadishu. These statelet projects in the first half of 2010s built to some extent on what had happened in Iraq a decade earlier, and in some places, notably Mali, repeated some of the same mistakes—failing, as AQIM’s then-emir Abd al-Malek Drukdel (Abu Musab Abd al-Wadud) put it in a letter to his theatre commander, to realise that the population was like a “baby … in its first days” that needed “support … until it stands”, not the application of shari’a with “extreme speed”, which will “engender hatred towards the mujahideen”.
Zarqawi’s Islamic State movement had been sponsored by Al-Qaeda since its creation in 1999, significantly driven by Muhammad Saladin Zaydan (Sayf al-Adel), a then-senior Bin Laden deputy and Al-Qaeda’s military chief after Atef’s demise. Sayf’s thinking was conditioned in 1999 by intra-jihadist rivalries in Afghanistan. After 9/11, it was Sayf—by then based in Iran, where he still is—who led the effort to merge Al-Qaeda’s and Zarqawi’s strategic visions. Zarqawi, who received his own direct assistance from the Iranians ahead of his arrival in Saddam’s Baghdad in May 2002, never overtly broke his arrangement with Al-Qaeda before his death in June 2006. Indeed, Zarqawi finally gave bay’a to Bin Laden in October 2004 and formally took on the Al-Qaeda name.
That said, even Zarqawi had cross-words with Al-Qaeda’s leadership—Al-Zawahiri wrote him a famously reproving letter that was intercepted in 2005—and Zarqawi’s successors almost immediately moved relations into a state of willed ambiguity, where they remained for eight years, before the contest over jihadist visions for Syria led to a catastrophic rupture in 2014. The crucial point is that analysis goes wrong if it sees the Islamic State as an Al-Qaeda “offshoot”: what happened in 2014 was “not a schism in the sense of two entities emerging from common foundations; it was the inevitable unravelling of an attempt, made in contingent circumstances, to merge two distinct and incompatible strategic visions.”
I wrote a lengthy report recently on Al-Qaeda’s strategic evolution, which is heavily impacted by its interaction with the Islamic State, so I won’t reiterate all of that here. The only additional point to highlight is that if one has to pin down a fork in the road where the IS-Qaeda collaboration became untenable, it was not 2013-14 in Syria, but 2007-08 in Iraq: “Where Bin Laden had seen IS’s setback [in the Surge and Awakening] as evidence their strategy was defective, IS had come to the reverse conclusion: there had been tactical errors, especially with the tribes, but the essentials of their theological-strategic vision were correct, and with adjustments they could recover and prevail; [with the declaration of the ‘caliphate’] they had their proof. As IS saw it, having been left for dead in 2007-08, they were able to revive by keeping their ideology pure and then do what all other Islamists claim to want to do.” A similar ideological divergence has taken hold in assessing the destruction of the “caliphate” in 2019: Al-Qaeda believes to have tried and failed makes it more difficult to convince people to try again; IS says it shows it is possible.
Under Al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda’s separation from the Islamic State movement was made absolute, and there is now no way back. Al-Zawahiri, building off some of the last things Bin Laden was writing, even leaned-in to some of the accusations the Zarqawists levelled at him, particularly about Al-Qaeda’s “populist” turn, its view that jihad cannot succeed without a mass audience. IS, of course, will have no part of holding the implementation of the Holy Law hostage to a plebiscite. The competition between Al-Qaeda and the Zarqawists has shaped the jihadist movement over the last decade, and will surely be important for some time to come, though the question remains of how long Al-Qaeda can remain in the competition.
AL-ZAWAHIRI’S DOWNFALL AND AL-QAEDA NOW
Al-Zawahiri’s demise, six decades after he joined the jihad and a quarter-century after he became one of America’s most wanted men, was suitably dramatic—in itself and in its implications.
Just after 6 AM that Sunday morning a year ago, having done his morning prayers, Al-Zawahiri stepped out onto the balcony of a villa in the Sherpur area of Kabul that had been appropriated from one of the American aid workers forced to flee Afghanistan when President Biden gave the country back to Pakistan’s jihadists in August 2021. Al-Zawahiri was being watched by an American drone and moments later the Al-Qaeda leader was shredded by two Hellfire R9Xs, missiles that use rapidly rotating blades instead of explosives to minimise unintentional casualties.54 Biden, in his statement announcing Al-Zawahiri’s killing, drew attention to the blood on Al-Zawahiri’s hands and quite rightly added: “justice has been delivered”.
The most immediate question was who would replace Al-Zawahiri and one year later we are still waiting for an answer to that question. Al-Qaeda has not formally announced Al-Zawahiri’s replacement, and there are several possibilities, though it is widely believed Sayf al-Adel has the role.55 Sayf would continue the localisation of Al-Qaeda and its aversion to direct terrorism in the West, having never wanted to go down that path in the first place (Sayf was among the internal opponents of the 9/11 attacks). But Sayf might well try to step up regional terrorism, or at least might well find himself being directed to escalate on that front. When Sayf began his present stay in Iran in 2002, as a guest of the thankfully-late Qassem Sulaymani, his relationship with the clerical regime and its spy-terrorist commander was already old.56 Sayf had, for example, been one the Al-Qaeda jihadists on the Iranian training program that enabled the East Africa Embassy bombings in 1998, and it was Sayf, while in Iran, who relayed the orders—from Al-Zawahiri, notably—to begin the terrorist campaign in Saudi Arabia in the early 2000s. At this stage there is no doubt that Sayf is a creature of the IRGC; there have been chances to leave, taken by some of Sayf’s comrades, but he never has. Iran has exerted considerable influence over Al-Qaeda for decades and Sayf’s ascension would be the culmination of that. Which would be Sayf’s primary problem: Al-Qaeda’s operatives and sympathisers have gotten used to rationalising the relationship with Iran;57 having the Iranians so overtly running the show is a different matter.58 The operational benefits of having a terrorist regime behind Sayf are obvious, but the political consequences within the jihadist world are negative, whether it is morale within Al-Qaeda or the group’s ability to compete with the Islamic State for the “undecideds”.
It is an open question how much impact Sayf or anyone else as emir can have on Al-Qaeda’s fortunes, even if he brings further Iranian support to the role. Al-Zawahiri was a notoriously awful, charisma-less speaker, which certainly matters when Al-Qaeda’s leader is significantly involved in setting strategic direction and tone.59 Some argue this visible failure has obscured Al-Zawahiri’s quieter successes, notably keeping the organisation cohesive after the Islamic State challenge. There is likely something to this,60 even if Al-Zawahiri was not the effective micromanager Bin Laden was right down to the end. While it is not clear whether Sayf would be better at the propaganda side of the work, he does seem to be skilled in bureaucracy and strategy. The problem is, Sayf is inheriting an organisation that is struggling on most metrics and in ways that will not easily be patched up. The decentralisation, for example, has weakened the Centre’s influence, but has not compartmentalised the theatres very well from the contagion of failure: whatever is going on in Syria, the jihadists are restricted to a besieged corner of the country; things are not good in Yemen; the competition with the Islamic State in Africa grinds on. Still, Afghanistan could yet revive the group’s fortunes; paradoxically, Al-Zawahiri being killed in Kabul is a serious sign of life for Al-Qaeda.
Probably the most important implication of Al-Zawahiri being killed in the Taliban’s capital is that it eliminates all the silly arguments about the Taliban and Al-Qaeda being separable. Where one goes, the other follows, because they are not, in fact, meaningfully distinct organisations but a part of a single jihadist network, sharing an ideology, resources, and ultimately a command structure that runs through Aabpara.61 To crystalise this point, Al-Zawahiri was in a house owned and protected by Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is the “interior minister” of the Taliban’s emirate and the declared overall deputy of the Taliban. Sirajuddin is also a senior Al-Qaeda member,62 and the well-trained unit within the Taliban that Siraj directly oversees, the “Haqqani Network”, is particularly close to the ISI, which means Pakistan’s military-intelligence establishment knew where Al-Qaeda’s leader was and tried to shield him from America—again.63
It is in part to avoid these implications for the Taliban/Pakistan that no admission has been put out under Al-Qaeda’s name that Al-Zawahiri was killed in Kabul. Hours after the strike, the Taliban condemned it, hilariously as a violation of the “Doha Agreement”. The Doha “deal” did not have many concrete terms—its main purpose was to cover the U.S. withdrawal—but in so many words it frowned on harbouring Al-Qaeda’s emir. Anyway, reporting from earlier this year indicated that the Taliban wanted to get out of this awkward situation by muzzling Al-Qaeda—the attempt to hold a public funeral was apparently shut down—and then announcing at some point that Al-Zawahiri has died of natural causes, definitely not in Afghanistan. To this hour, the Taliban are issuing direct denials that Al-Zawahiri was killed in Kabul. It is difficult to believe anybody is actually fooled by this, but it is possible the U.S. and others in Europe will go along with this for political reasons, both to save their own face about what they have already done and to pave the way for the “engagement” with the Taliban that some of them think is necessary.
Biden’s supporters and the usual suspects tried to make political hay out of Al-Zawahiri’s killing, claiming it as a victory for the “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism “strategy”. Doubtless this narrative had some traction. Cynics might wonder if the timing of this strike—given that Al-Zawahiri was tracked down six months earlier—was not meant to dampen the criticism on the first anniversary of Biden abandoning Afghanistan. If so, it pretty much worked. The success on the political front, however, does not erase the analytical questions from those of us who regard this “over-the-rainbow” concept askance. The full weight of the American Imperium being able to find and neutralise one long-time nemesis does not even begin to suggest that the U.S. has good visibility into the dynamics within Afghanistan that are fostering emerging threats. All we know for now is that the jihadist movement and Islamists more broadly have been buoyed by the fall of Afghanistan, and that Al-Qaeda is in places Biden said it would not be.64
Ronen Bergman (2018), Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations, pp. 39-42.
Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin (2005), The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for Third World, pp. 156-68.
Shadi Hamid (2014), Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East, p. 64.
Iran’s regime changed the name of “Khaled Islambuli Street” in January 2004 as part of an effort to improve relations with the Egyptian government. The new name was “Intifada Street”, a reference to the then-ongoing terrorist war Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was waging against Israel—with extensive support from the Iranian theocracy.
Oved Lobel (2021, August 4), ‘The Graveyard of Empires: The Causes and Consequences of American Withdrawal from Afghanistan’, European Eye on Radicalization Report, pp. 9-13. Available here.
Christine Fair (2014), Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War, p. 82.
For the most thorough overview, see: Chris Sands and Fazelminallah Qazizai (2019), Night Letters: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Afghan Islamists Who Changed the World.
Thomas Hegghammer (2020), The Caravan: Abdallah Azzam and the Rise of Global Jihad, p. 365.
The 9/11 Commission Report (2004), p. 467. Al-Zawahiri’s memoir, published in 2001 was entitled, “Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner” (Fursan Taht Rayah al-Nabi).
The Caravan, p. 329.
The Caravan, pp. 351-52.
Bin Laden had been moved to create the Masada camp after the humiliating fiasco at Zhawar in April 1986, which disclosed how badly organised and incapable the Arab-Afghan fighters were. In April 1987, the Arab-Afghans endured what might most accurately be described as a less-bad defeat at the battle at Jaji: the Mujahideen (just about) held off one of the Soviet “retreating offensive” incursions, but the Arabs got mauled and forced to retreat. Still, it wasn’t quite the decimation of a year earlier, and Bin Laden—who personally fought at Jaji—ascribed the improvement, naturally, to the training at Masada. In casting the Arabs at Jaji as partaking in glorious victory, Bin Laden was helped by the daily dispatches of Jamal Khashoggi, and Bin Laden’s star was born in the Arab world. It was this moment in the spring of 1987 that Mustafa Hamid identifies as “the main cause of Al-Qaeda’s emergence as a separate organisation, and its rapid growth.” Hamid adds that Bin Laden’s money also played a significant role, since most other factions were broke by this point. See: Mustafa Hamid and Leah Farrall (2015), The Arabs at War in Afghanistan, p. 111.
The best book on Al-Qaeda’s longstanding entanglement with “the Haqqani Network” is: Don Rassler and Vahid Brown (2014), Fountainhead of Jihad: The Haqqani Nexus, 1973-2012.
The Egyptians closest to Bin Laden seem to have been: Ali Amin al-Rashidi (Abu Ubayda al-Panjshiri), Muhammad Atef (Abu Hafs al-Masri), and Sayyed Imam al-Sharif (Dr. Fadl)—rather than Al-Zawahiri. Al-Sharif was close to Al-Zawahiri, though neither of them were major figures in the Arab-Afghan population. The narrative that “evil Egyptians” led Bin Laden astray in the late 1980s might have partly originated in a post-9/11 effort by Azzam’s partisans and/or the Saudi government to rewrite the history to make themselves look better. The main aspect, however, seems to be some Western authors and journalists having “overdramatized the intrigues in Peshawar”, where there really was “bad blood between Abdallah Azzam and some of the Egyptians”. The Caravan, pp. 359-61.
Azzam, though not a member of Al-Qaeda, was “not a very active opponent”: he largely did not understand what it was and where it was going, but his tendency to avoid intra-Muslim conflict meant Azzam generally did not oppose developments within the Arab-Afghan population, and was not displeased at the special forces-like capacity Al-Qaeda was providing to the Arab-Afghans [The Caravan, p. 361]. Minutes from a meeting in August 1988 are sometimes held up as the founding of Al-Qaeda. What those minutes actually show is Al-Qaeda as a pre-existing organisation, and an effort to poach from Azzam’s cadre—albeit subtly, since one of Azzam’s key lieutenants, Tamim al-Adnani, was present [The Arabs at War in Afghanistan, pp. 108-12]. In other words, Bin Laden was competing with Azzam, even if Azzam was not aware of it.
Donald Holbrook (2014), The Al-Qaeda Doctrine: The Framing and Evolution of the Leadership’s Public Discourse, p. 82.
Lawrence Wright (2006), The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda’s Road to 9/11, pp. 157-59.
9/11 Commission Report, p. 57.
The exact timeline of Bin Laden’s arrival in Sudan is somewhat contested. The 9/11 Commission Report simply says: “Bin Ladin moved to Sudan in 1991”. Other sources than the link cited above give the arrival date as December 1991, for example, A History of Modern Sudan (2008), by Robert Collins (p. 196), which describes Bin Laden being received “enthusiastically” by Al-Turabi. There are claims for other dates, both later (January 1992 seems to be quite a common one) and earlier—Dwight Hamilton and Kostas Rimsa claim (p. 94) in, Terror Threat: International and Homegrown Terrorists and Their Threat to Canada (2007), that Bin Laden was “fully established” in Sudan by mid-September 1991—but the sourcing for these is less credible.
9/11 Commission Report, p. 57.
9/11 Commission Report, p. 57.
Kyle Orton (2023, February 23), ‘Is Al-Qaeda Capable of Global Terrorism Any More?’, European Eye on Radicalization Report, p. 14. Available here.
John Schindler (2007), Unholy Terror: Bosnia, Al-Qaida, and the Rise of Global Jihad, p. 123.
For the earliest and most comprehensive documentation of the nature of the Huthis, see: Oved Lobel (2021, March 24), ‘Becoming Ansar Allah: How the Islamic Revolution Conquered Yemen’, European Eye on Radicalization Report. Available here.
The story of Ibrahim al-Banna in Yemen highlights not only the Qaeda-Iran relationship, but the ambiguous role of the Yemeni government under Ali Abdullah Saleh when it came to fighting the jihadists. Al-Banna was arrested in August 2010 in Yemen—it is from the transcripts of his interrogation that we know how early he established Al-Qaeda’s relations with the Huthis—but he was released very quickly. This kind of catch-and-release, as well as the mysterious jailbreaks, were a feature of the Saleh government’s “War on Terror” policy.
For the full story, see: Thomas Hegghammer (2010), Jihad in Saudi Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism Since 1979.
The transcripts from Al-Banna’s brief detention in 2010 have him explaining his relationship with Abdul Munim al-Badawi (Abu Hamza al-Muhajir), another Muslim Brotherhood and EIJ veteran, the deputy and “war minister” for the Islamic State when it was first declared in 2006, and a key part of the stitching that bound Al-Qaeda to its Iraqi affiliate before and after the years of overt loyalty from 2004 to 2006. Al-Badawi moved to Iraq in 2002, part of the Al-Qaeda cell that set up in Saddam’s Baghdad that spring, and remained in contact with Al-Banna afterwards: Al-Banna says he pushed for Al-Badawi’s promotion within Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, and, interestingly, it seems Al-Banna was behind the confusion over Al-Badawi’s real identity, convincing Al-Badawi to adopt the kunya “Abu Ayyub al-Masri”. By all accounts, Al-Banna and Al-Badawi were close socially as well as ideologically and organisationally, having run Al-Qaeda’s operations together for two years, from 1996 to 1998, and Al-Banna’s devotion to Al-Zawahiri appears absolute. Al-Banna (and Al-Badawi) were appointed leaders in Yemen by Al-Zawahiri in the 1990s, and in 2006 Al-Banna unhesitatingly stepped down as emir from what was not-yet called AQAP to make way for Nasr al-Wuhayshi after he had been freed in one of those Yemeni jailbreaks. Al-Banna worked in Yemen with Muhammad al-Zawahiri, brother of the departed Al-Qaeda emir, and Ahmad Mabruk, also an EIJ veteran, who accompanied the good doctor on the 1995 Russia trip and was a major jihadist figure in his own right. Another of AQAP’s accounts tells of Al-Banna having been imprisoned in the late 1980s with another EIJ operative, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid (Saeed al-Masri), who had served time earlier in the 1980s, presumably simultaneous with if not alongside Al-Zawahiri, as part of the post-Sadat crackdown. Al-Yazid was Al-Qaeda’s financial emir at the time of 9/11 and rose to be number three in the organisation by about 2007, appointed to oversee the war in Afghanistan and as Bin Laden’s chief of staff. Al-Yazid was killed in a drone strike in May 2010 and replaced by a Libyan, Jamal al-Misrati (Atiyya). Al-Yazid had been one of the point-men handling AQC’s relations with the IS movement. Al-Yazid instructed Samir Hijazi (Faruq al-Suri) to go to Baghdad in early 2002, for example. (Hijazi broke with IS and currently leads Al-Qaeda’s overt presence in Syria.) Al-Yazid met Abdurrahman al-Qaduli (Abu Ali al-Anbari), the de facto deputy of what was then-AQM, when Al-Qaduli travelled—via Iran—to Pakistan in February 2006, four months before Al-Qaduli was captured in Iraq. And even after IS formally dissolved its Al-Qaeda ties, Al-Yazid was involved in sending instructions to the group’s leaders in Iraq to tell them to desist from certain “political gaffes”. A number of letters have been found from after IS supposedly broke with Al-Qaeda in 2006 containing instructions to IS—often to leave Iran alone—and IS’s most famous spokesman, Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani), confirmed IS “kept abiding by the advice and guidance” until the rancorous split in 2013-14.
Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark (2017), The Exile: The Stunning Inside Story of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda in Flight, p. 44.
Stephen Hayes (2004), The Connection: How al-Qaeda’s Collaboration With Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America, pp. 103-04.
9/11 Commission Report, p. 66.
9/11 Commission Report, p. 66.
9/11 Commission Report, p. 66.
9/11 Commission Report, pp. 133-34.
Brynjar Lia (2007), Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al-Qaida Strategist Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, p. 287.
9/11 Commission Report, p. 151.
9/11 Commission Report, p. 147.
9/11 Commission Report, p. 148.
9/11 Commission Report, p. 149.
The Exile, p. 14.
9/11 Commission Report, p. 155.
The 9/11 Commission Report (p. 532) notes that KSM claimed Al-Zawahiri was opposed to the 9/11 attacks, imploring Bin Laden to adhere to Taliban emir Mullah Muhammad Umar’s injunction after the Embassy bombings against using Afghanistan as a base to attack the U.S., but “other detainees” said Al-Zawahiri was “squarely behind” Bin Laden, which seems to be the truth. It is possible KSM was trying to exclude other jihadists from “credit” for the “Planes Operation”.
The Exile, p. 44.
The Exile, pp. 45-7.
9/11 Commission Report, p. 332.
The Exile, pp. 147-48.
The Exile, pp. 159-60.
The Exile, pp. 235-40.
Lobel, ‘The Graveyard of Empires’, pp. 6-7, 23.
The Exile, p. 495.
The first use of the “ninja missile” was in Syria, in February 2017, to kill Al-Zawahiri’s then-deputy, Abu al-Khayr. At the time, those of us watching Syria knew that something was different about the strike—Abu al-Khayr’s car was still intact, except for a section of roof on one side—and then it happened several more times. It took two years for a public explanation.
United Nations Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team Report, 13 February 2023, p. 3. Available here.
Brian Fishman (2016), The Master Plan: ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and the Jihadi Strategy for Final Victory, p. 38.
That said, Ansaru—the Al-Qaeda faction in Nigeria—did go out of its way to issue a statement defending Sayf, specifically from the charges of being an Iranian puppet, about three weeks before Al-Zawahiri was killed.
The other most obvious candidate after Sayf is Muhammad Abbatay (Abd al-Rahman al-Maghrebi), Al-Zawahiri’s son-in-law, who is also in Iran. Yasin al-Suri, another serious contended, is in Iran, too.
Gregg Carlstrom, the Middle East correspondent at The Economist, memorably tweeted: “Zawahiri will be best remembered for transforming al-Qaeda from a feared terrorist franchise into a really boring podcast”.
A U.S. National Security Council official said on background: “[Al-Zawahiri] used his authority across Al-Qaeda’s global network of regional affiliates and followers to provide strategic direction and continually urging attacks on the United States and reinforcing the prioritization of the United States as Al-Qaeda’s primary enemy. … He built an organizational model that allowed him to lead the global network, even from relative isolation. And he was one of the last remaining figures who carried this kind of [status] significance”.
Lobel, ‘The Graveyard of Empires’, pp. 6, 23.
On 29 July 2022, Siraj gave an interview to an Indian outlet saying: “Al-Qaeda … has no presence in Afghanistan and is no more of a threat and the world should not feel threatened about the already dead outfit.” It’s obviously amusing enough given Al-Zawahiri being killed in Kabul two days later, and more so once it is understood that Siraj is also a member of Al-Qaeda and was speaking from Afghanistan.
Carlotta Gall’s The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014 goes as far as one can on the present evidence in describing Pakistan’s concealment of Bin Laden up to 2011. Whether ever detail transpires to be true on that specific issue, it is an excellent description of the shameful situation the West got into in Afghanistan, paying Pakistan to pretend to help us, as it barely concealed the fact it orchestrated the jihadist mayhem that killed our soldiers and thousands of Afghan civilians. In terms of last year, the White House spokesman was asked whether Pakistan had been warned about the drone heading for Al-Zawahiri, and pointedly responded, “There were no notifications in advance”. Any such notification to Pakistan would have led to Al-Qaeda’s leader being tipped off.
Biden made a strange statement (even stranger if you see the video) on 30 June: “Do you remember what I said about Afghanistan? I said Al-Qaeda would not be there. I said it wouldn’t be there. I said we’d get help from the Taliban. What’s happening now? What’s going on? Read your press. I was right.” The “help from the Taliban” line was particularly odd, since Biden had needed to order the strike on Al-Zawahiri precisely because the Taliban were not helping against Al-Qaeda, and were in fact harbouring its leader in their capital. In the year since, the evidence has piled up all in the same direction. The U.N. Monitoring Team report in June painted an alarming picture of what the ISI network is doing in Afghanistan—and makes clear that it is all components of that network: “The link between the Taliban and both Al-Qaida and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) [the ‘Pakistani Taliban’] remains strong and symbiotic. A range of terrorist groups have greater freedom of manoeuvre under the Taliban … They are making good use of this, and the threat of terrorism is rising in both Afghanistan and the region”. Etc. Etc. A decent summary of the report is available here.