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Al-Qaida’s leadership crisis

First published in Israel Hayon

Al-Qaida’s power has been steadily waning over the past six months. This decline is due to a series of targeted killings, carried out by the U.S., of its senior operatives, such as its leader in Yemen Nasir al-Wuhayshi, as well as the growing rivalry with the Islamic State group, which has been challenging al-Qaida and its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The jihadi terrorist group has found itself in the midst of a leadership crisis following the recent confirmed death of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who since the 1990s was al-Qaida’s longest standing ally.

The Taliban’s adamant struggle against the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan made Omar a prominent symbol of jihad during his lifetime, and the information about the exact date and circumstances of his death remains ambiguous. The Afghan government claims he died in hospital of a serious illness back in 2013 — a fact concealed by his supporters for fear it would cause a rift within Taliban ranks, and undermine the group’s efforts to drive U.S. forces out of Afghanistan.

The loss of a leader of Omar’s caliber may threaten the unity of Taliban ranks in Afghanistan, as the growing rivalry over key roles in the organization already indicates, but it also does not bode well for al-Qaida and Zawahiri.

It is a little known fact that members of al-Qaida branches in the Arabian Peninsula, Maghreb, Somalia, Syria, and the Indian subcontinent, including Zawahiri himself, have sworn their allegiance to Omar, hailing him as “amir al-mu’minin” — the “leader of the faithful” — a title reserved for the leader of the Muslim nation. This honor suggests that his followers were willing to accept his hegemony over other territories in the Arab world, as well.

Moreover, Zawahiri and other senior al-Qaida officials have made Afghanistan their home, and are under the Taliban’s protection. This is why Zawahiri’s silence at this critical time raises questions about his future.

News of Omar’s death reinforced Islamic State’s position in the region, as the group understands it to be an opportunity to double its political power. Prior to Omar’s death Islamic State officials routinely questioned his mental and physical leadership skills, and their rhetoric illustrated a two-pronged approach: The desire to expand Islamic State’s influence into Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the desire to position Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the only legitimate leader, who all Muslims bust obey.

In fact, Islamic State operatives are already responsible for extensive social media chatter suggesting Zawahiri himself is no longer among the living — if he were alive, they argue, he would have commented on the death of his patron by now.

Islamic State suggests that Zawahiri’s supporters are using the same deception tactics that have been employed by the Taliban over Omar’s demise since 2013, to conceal the death of al-Qaida’s leader. Zawahiri’s prolonged silence only fuels Islamic State’s propaganda, and further erodes al-Qaida’s position.