The Death of Al-Qaeda’s Leaders and the Iran Factor

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 16 November 2020

Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah (Abu Muhammad al-Masri) and Ayman al-Zawahiri. // Image sources: FBI, AFP

Credible reports over the last few days indicate that Al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is dead, and there are even clearer reports that two of his most senior deputies have been killed. The terrorist network itself, however, will survive. Al-Qaeda has, in the last ten years, survived the killing of its charismatic founder Usama bin Laden, the upheaval of the “Arab spring”, and the rise of the Islamic State (IS)—all of them greater challenges than whatever short-term turbulence might attend the succession process.

The Recent Casualties

Dr. Al-Zawahiri was reported dead on Friday by Hassan Hassan, a director at the Center for Global Policy and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. “The news is making the rounds in close [jihadist] circles”, said Hassan, that Al-Zawahiri had died sometime in the middle of October 2020 of natural causes. It is unclear if this refers to the coronavirus. It is also unclear at the present time whether Al-Zawahiri was in Afghanistan or Pakistan—or Iran (more on this later).

The delay in an official statement from Al-Qaeda about Al-Zawahiri’s death would not be unprecedented. After Bin Laden was killed on 2 May 2011, Al-Zawahiri was named leader six weeks later, on 16 June. At present, we are only about four weeks out from Al-Zawahiri’s alleged demise. And this is without mentioning Al-Qaeda’s Taliban ally, which hid the death of its leader, Mullah Muhammad Umar, for over two years.

One possible reason for the delay is that the original succession plan was derailed when Husam Abd al-Ra’uf (Abu Muhsin al-Masri) was killed in the village of Kunsaf, in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province, potentially within days of the time when Al-Zawahiri seems to have died. The Afghan government announced that it had killed Abd al-Ra’uf on 25 October, and the raid was said at that time to have taken place “last week”, i.e. between 12 and 18 October. Abd al-Ra’uf has been on the FBI’s most-wanted list for many years.

Abd al-Ra’uf’s death has additional significance: he was discovered embedded with the Taliban, a practical demonstration of the fact the group will not—despite suggestive language in the withdrawal agreement it signed with the Americans in February—sever its links with Al-Qaeda.

Read the rest at European Eye on Radicalization

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