By Mohamed Bin Ali and Ahmad Saiful Rijal Bin Hassan
The leader of the Al-Qaeda terrorist group Ayman Al-Zawahiri was killed on July 31, 2022 by a drone strike launched by the United States. After the attack took place, President Joe Biden said on television that “justice has been served and this terrorist leader is gone”
The New York Times reported that the attack took place at a house owned by Sirajuddin Haqqani. He is the acting Interior Minister of Afghanistan and is the leader of the Haqqani network, a powerful faction within the Taliban which has ties with Al-Qaeda.
It turned out that this attack was a great blow in terms of leadership, morale and operational aspects for Al-Qaeda which was founded by Osama bin Laden two decades ago. But after the death of Al-Zawahiri, who will take over the leadership and will the ideology of Al-Qaeda fade away and will the threat of Al-Qaeda terrorism decline?
Who is Al-Zawahiri’s Successor?
Al-Zawahiri led Al-Qaeda for 10 years from 2011 after the death of Osama bin Laden. During the period of Al-Zawahiri’s leadership, he published many propaganda messages through video and audio clips in which he spread his theories and encouraged his followers to carry out terrorist attacks.
After the killing of Osama bin Laden, the transition of power happened easily because Al-Zawahiri was the second in command and was designated as the successor to Osama bin Laden.
Currently, Al-Qaeda does not have a solid plan for an orderly transition of power. One of the reasons is that many of the senior leadership of Al-Qaeda have been killed in various anti-terror operations. Another reason is that many among the followers of Al-Qaeda joined other violent groups such as Islamic State group. Things like this cause Al-Qaeda to fall behind and lack the strong appeal to attract talents to its leadership ranks.
Al-Zawahiri’s successor remains to be a mystery. According to analysts, one of the main candidates to replace Al-Zawahiri is the former colonel of the special forces of the Egyptian army, Muhammad Salah al-Din Zaidan, also known as Saif al-Adel. He is believed to be a respected person among Al-Qaeda fighters due to his experience and intelligence in the battlefield.
Saif al-Adel is believed to be in Afghanistan and is known to be an expert in explosives. Al-Adel was accused of being involved in the simultaneous bombing of the United States embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998. He was also said to be involved in the Black Hawk Down attack in 1993 where two American military helicopters were shot down in Mogadishu, Somalia.
There is also a possibility where Al-Qaeda will consider one of the leaders of its regional affiliates in Somalia, namely the al-Shabab group, Al-Qaeda in Yemen or in Mali represented by Jamaat Nusrat Al-Islam Wa Al-Muslimeen to take over the leadership.
Although this has never happened before, it does not mean it cannot occur. This is because the power of Al-Qaeda is no longer centralised, and it is given authority to others under the leadership of Al-Zawahiri.
In 2013, the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Nasir Al-Wuhayshi was widely reported to have been appointed as Al-Zawahiri’s succesor. This shows that the regional leaders compete with each other for the central leadership role. But Al-Wuhayshi was killed in a drone attack in 2015.
The main ideology of Al-Qaeda is to establish an Islamic caliphate by means of Jihad ‘qital’, which means armed war. According to Al-Qaeda, Jihad ‘qital’ is fardu ain (obligatory act) and the only form of jihad in Islam. The fact is, Jihad has a broad meaning and the term ‘qital’ is only one of several meanings of jihad.
This kind of perversion of the meaning of jihad and the imposition of obligations on it has produced a generation of radical individuals who have heeded Al-Qaeda’s call to supposedly fight for Islam. Unfortunately, there are a few Muslims consumed by the narrative of Al-Qaeda in their journey to know the religion more deeply.
In addition to spreading this kind of jihad rhetoric, Al-Qaeda has also taken advantage of the solidarity of Muslim activists around the world against the oppression of Muslims. Al-Qaeda succeeded in spreading the narrative that Western authorities have declared war on those who are considered enemies of Islam.
Of course, problems such as Islamophobia and the issue of oppression need to be addressed but certainly not with acts of terror. Islam advocates overcoming problems with finding right solutions with wisdom.
Countering Al-Qaeda’s Ideology
Continued efforts to evaluate strategies to counter Al-Qaeda’s ideology are of utmost importance. Among the effective efforts to fortify Muslim community is to empower rightful understanding of Islam so as not to be easily influenced by extremist’ beliefs.
The ideology pioneered by Al-Qaeda and groups aligned with it will continue to pose a long-term security threat. In fact, it is also a threat to the purity of Islam which always values peace and harmony.
Radical ideologies and orientations including extremism, exclusivity, racism and anti-religious sentiments have hindered world peace in recent times. The sophistication of technology and the emergence of social media make efforts to curb the spread of these negative notions increasingly difficult and challenging.
To counter Al-Qaeda’s ideology and radical beliefs, religious leadership plays an important role in providing contextual religious understanding to today’s society. Muslim scholars should lead the Muslim community to a strong religious practice based on tolerance and moderation.
The Future of Al-Qaeda
The fate of the Al-Qaeda group after the death of Al-Zawahiri becomes a question mark. Although the direction of Al-Qaeda will not change as it happened after the killing of Osama bin Laden. What will happen is that Al-Qaeda will strengthen cooperation with militant groups that have a common goal and try to plan, prepare and carry out attacks.
Although Al-Qaeda is in a weakened state, it has not completely disappeared and is now an underground movement while rebuilding its capabilities. Al-Qaeda will also continue to plant an ideology of hatred against non-Muslims in order to divide the world community and also crack the harmonious relationship between religious followers.
*Mohamed Bin Ali is Assistant Professor and Ahmad Saiful Rijal Bin Hassan is an Associate Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Both studied Sharia law at Al-Azhar University, Cairo and are counsellors with the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG).