The death of Ayman al-Zawahiri: Implications for al-Qaeda and the future of global jihadism

Observatorio de atentados yihadistas de junio de 2023
Far-right violence and terrorism – June 2023


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The death of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri marks the end of a cycle. Many questions remain to be answered in the wake of his death, not least the implications for al-Qaeda of the arrival of a new leader in both the short and long term. The decisions taken by the new figure responsible for leading the terrorist organisation will be decisive in determining both al-Qaeda’s relationship with its allied groups and with its enemies. Likewise, the strategy adopted by al-Qaeda will provide insight into the way in which the historic terrorist organisation views the future of the global Jihadist movement.

Another interesting point to know will be how the relationship between al-Qaeda and Daesh evolves, bearing in mind that the strong personal rivalry between al-Zawahiri and al-Baghdadi, which marked the parting of the ways between the organisations they led, no longer exists. The arrival of new leaders could represent a turning point in terms of a possible understanding between the two, but not cooperation, let alone a hypothetical merger. The latter option seems somewhat unrealistic, at least in the short to medium term.

Finally, the Taliban’s response to al-Zawahiri’s death will become clearer in the coming months. Many doubts and questions surround them, both as to whether or not they were aware of the existence of the al-Qaeda leader on their territory and as to their protection of al-Qaeda. To a large extent, how they deal with this uncertainty will be key to achieving their desired goal: recognition by the international community. Therefore, they will be very meticulous when it comes to acting on this event, taking the measures they deem appropriate so as not to convey the image, once again, of being an actor that supports terrorism. Furthermore, if it is indeed true that they did not know of alZawahiri’s existence, they will have to carry out a rigorous internal investigation to find out who was responsible for harbouring him and whether they are among their allies.

In recent years we have witnessed a decentralisation of terrorism, with the emergence of different groups and actors of a local nature, who have preferred to focus on a jihad close to home. They have defended interests in their area of influence, with independence in terms of funding, communication campaigns, strategic and tactical planning, and internally-decided operations. The death of al-Zawahiri, marking the end in some way of a generation of jihadism, may be either a revival of the movement or its final judgement as a global movement. It is possible that the death of al-Zawahiri, together with the Daesh debacle, and the location contained within the geographical scope of action of most of the franchise or satellite groups of al-Qaeda and Daesh, will end up proving right one of al-Zawahiri’s great “enemies”, Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, when decades ago he defended his main mantra “Nizam, the Tanzim” (the system, not the organisation) as the path to follow to carry out a global jihad.


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