16 November 2020 – By Kyle Orton, Syria and terrorism analyst
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. The U.S.’s muted response to Abd al-Ra’uf being killed is a stark contrast to President Donald Trump’s reaction to other counter-terrorism successes—“He died like a dog”, Trump famously declared in a bombastic speech after IS’s caliph was struck down—and the low-key American reaction is instructive: the U.S. will not be backing away from its withdrawal timetable in Afghanistan merely because the Taliban is violating core elements of it.
Simultaneous with the news about Al-Zawahiri sources speaking to Bilal Sarwary, a well-connected Afghan journalist, said that Usama Mahmood might also now be dead. Mahmood became the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), the branch set up in 2014, after AQIS’ former emir, Asim Umar, was killed in Afghanistan on 23 September 2019. Like Abd al-Ra-uf, Umar had been within a Taliban unit when he was killed and the same was true of Muhammad Hanif, the Pakistani bomb-maker for AQIS who was killed last week. Prior to becoming AQIS emir, Mahmood had been the AQIS spokesman. The circumstances and timing of Mahmood’s death are entirely opaque at this stage.
Most dramatically, hours after news of Al-Zawahiri’s passing, The New York Times reported that Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah (Abu Muhammad al-Masri) had been killed in Iran “by Israeli operatives at the behest of the United States”, relying on the testimony of U.S. intelligence officials. Abdullah “was gunned down on the streets of Tehran by two assassins on a motorcycle on Aug. 7, the anniversary of the [East African] embassy attacks” in 1998, which Abdullah is believed to have masterminded, The Times reported. Abdullah’s daughter, Maryam, the widow of Hamza bin Laden, Usama’s only son by his third wife, Khairiah Sabar, was also assassinated in the incident. Hamza spent many years in Iran, even marrying Maryam while there, before his death in an American drone strike, which was announced in 2019.
The Associated Press added further details. The operation was carried out by Kidon, a unit within MOSSAD, and Maryam was a deliberate target, not “collateral damage”, since “the U.S. believed she was being groomed for a leadership role in Al-Qaeda and intelligence suggested she was involved in operational planning”.
It is interesting to note that the assassination in Tehran on 7 August 2020 became known to the world soon after it happened, but the clerical regime managed to cover it in a smokescreen, saying that the slain man was Habib Dawood, a Lebanese history professor, and the woman was his daughter, Maryam. The Iranian regime then pumped out through its disinformation system the idea that Habib was a member of Hizballah, the Lebanon-based branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). This still left the mystery about who was responsible, with only a very few identifying the modus operandi in real time as that of Israel.
Now it is clear why the revolutionary clergy who rule Iran were so keen to steer away from the true identity of the man killed on the streets of their capital three months ago, and why they continue to deny it was Abdullah: Abdullah’s presence shines a light, once again, on the long relationship the Islamic Republic has with Al-Qaeda.
Iran and Al-Qaeda: The Early Days
The 9/11 Commission traces the Iran-Qaeda relationship back to 1992, when IRGC—through the military commander of Hizballah, Imad Mughniya—began providing training to Al-Qaeda jihadists in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. This relationship widened and deepened during the war in Bosnia (1992-5), when IRGC worked side-by-side with Al-Qaeda to support the Sarajevo government, something the Iranian leadership admitted earlier this year.
Al-Qaeda was evicted from Sudan to Afghanistan in 1996, but this did not disrupt relations with Tehran. Quite the reverse. Al-Qaeda was drawing on Iranian expertise to make good on Bin Ladin’s February 1998 declaration of war against the West. In August 1998, Al-Qaeda blew up the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, killing 200 people, an operation Abdullah is believed to be behind. “Support from Iran and Hizballah was critical to Al-Qaeda’s execution of the 1998 embassy bombings,” a U.S. federal court ruled after examining the evidence.
The final stop on the road to 9/11 was Al-Qaeda’s attack on the U.S.S. Cole in the port of Aden in October 2000.
The 9/11 attacks themselves leave some awkward questions for Iran’s regime, given the facilitation and other assistance provided to half of the hijackers, but it is after those attacks that things become clearest. As the Taliban-Qaeda regime collapsed in late 2011, much of Al-Qaeda’s rank-and-file and its two most senior leaders, Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri, went with the Taliban into Pakistan. But, as Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark explain in their book, The Exile: The Flight of Osama bin Laden, a strategic majority of Al-Qaeda’s leadership went to Iran.
Iran and Al-Qaeda: After 9/11
In December 2001, The Exile documents, as Bin Laden and his senior lieutenants were cornered, he made contact with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of the old Afghan Mujahideen commanders who was at that time in Iran and serving the IRGC’s Quds Force commander, Qassem Sulaymani, the de facto second-in-command of the Islamic Republic. Hekmatyar helped Al-Qaeda’s leaders move into Iran and embed among Arab populations in the border areas, while one of Al-Qaeda’s clerics, Mahfuz al-Walid (Abu Hafs al-Mauritani), went to Tehran to negotiate for a more formal arrangement.
In January 2002, Iranian officials informed Al-Walid that “the highest authority”, namely Sulaymani, “had approved Al-Qaeda’s safe haven”, write Levy and Scott-Clark. The deal Sulaymani made with Al-Walid included much of Al-Qaeda’s military leadership, notably Abdullah, Muhammad Saladin Zaydan (Sayf al Adel), and Abdullah Rajab Abdurrahman (Abu al-Khayr al-Masri); the strategist Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (Abu Musab al-Suri); much of Al-Qaeda’s religious leadership, people like Sulaiman Abu Ghaith; and much of the Bin Laden family.
In Iran at this time, too, was Ahmad al-Khalayleh, the infamous Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of IS. In 2002, Zarqawi was criss-crossing the region to recruit, to set up the “ratlines” that would bring jihadists into Iraq after Saddam Husayn’s regime was overthrown, and to establish contact with the vast underground jihadi apparatus that was already in Iraq. Zarqawi accomplished all of this long before the invasion of March 2003, and Iran helped him (as did Bashar al-Asad’s regime in Syria). “[T]he Quds Force … had been actively helping Zarqawi’s fighters reach Kurdish-held Iraq”, where a jihadi emirate was already in existence, note Levy and Scott-Clark. “Zarqawi had been ranging all over the region, using real Iranian passports … and communicating with a Swiss satellite phone and two Iranian cell phones provided by the Quds Force.” Zarqawi was briefly “arrested” in Iran on the eve of the Iraq invasion; not only was he, along with all of his men, let go, “the Iranians arranged ‘special’ passports for him and his fighters ‘to slip into Iraq without a visa’ … [and] the Quds Force had also supplied Zarqawi with weapons, false documents, even money.”
It would often be claimed in subsequent years—once it was admitted that Al-Qaeda’s leaders were in Iran—that they were there under “house arrest”, but as Levy and Scott-Clark make clear that is a rather wilful description.
There is no doubt that Al-Qaeda leaders in Iran were constrained to a certain degree in terms of their movements, that Iran regarded the presence of Al-Qaeda leaders under their watch in Tehran as insurance against terrorism (a calculation well-made since Al-Qaeda’s internal documents show the strenuous efforts Bin Laden went to in ensuring the IS movement, then an Al-Qaeda franchise, did not attack Iran), and that Al-Qaeda Central (AQC) competed with Iran to a degree, but this was mostly about the terms on which the Qaeda leadership remained in Iran; there was no serious proposal from either side for them to leave.
Furthermore, relations were personally quite warm. Take this scene from The Exile:
[T]he welfare of Osama’s family was the personal responsibility of General Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Quds Force. Osama’s sons, who had met him a few times already and called him “Hajji Qassem”, said he was “very dynamic and positive”. … Qassem assigned two senior Quds Force officers to Block 300. Their job was to provide “the guests with whatever they needed”. Furniture, kitchen appliances, new fridges, and wide-screen televisions arrived. The Mauritanian [i.e. Al-Walid] was given an “unlimited budget” with which to furnish a new religious library …
[W]hen Ramadan came in October , the shura and Osama’s sons invited Qassem’s officials to break their fast with them … The Iranians responded by taking the Al-Qaeda shura on coaches for an iftar meal at a five-star restaurant. A few days later, General Qassem Suleimani turned up in person to celebrate Eid with Osama’s sons, sitting down with the heirs of the world’s most infamous terrorist to break the fast.
And most importantly, this “house arrest” did not include preventing Al-Qaeda engaging in terrorism. On the contrary. Sayf al-Adel, whose “regular discussions” with Sulaymani even Al-Walid, the main interlocuter for the Iranians, was not privy to, was able to continue his external terrorism work. The bombings in Riyadh and Casablanca in May 2003 were both Sayf’s handiwork, for example. In the period after Bin Laden was killed and Sayf was musing on the idea of revenge attacks, “Suleimani had made it clear on more than one occasion that Iran was ready to help if it, too, benefited”, the authors note. There was so much lassitude that Abu al-Khayr had been able to work, unsuccessfully as it turned out, on developing a “dirty bomb”.
Even in Iraq, where Al-Qaeda and Iran supposedly differed most directly, the reality was rather different. Brian Fishman notes in his book, The Master Plan, that the handbook IS looked to for inspiration in creating a chaotic situation in which an Islamic state can emerge, The Management of Savagery, was written by Muhammad Khalil al-Hakaymah (Abu Bakr Naji) while he was in Iran alongside Sayf—and both men “had ties with the Iranian government predating 9/ 11”. Levy and Scott-Clark add that not only was Sayf able to issue guidance to then-Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI, later IS), but “Iranian supply lines and Al-Qaeda cash” enabled Zarqawi’s rampage.
U.S. intelligence uncovered evidence on-the-ground at the time confirming this overlap of interests. Sanctions notifications from the U.S. Treasury confirmed that Iran’s then-Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS or VEVAK) “provided money and weapons to Al-Qaeda in Iraq”. Qays al-Khazali, the leader of one of Iran’s most powerful Iraqi militias, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, was arrested by the U.S. in 2007 and told interrogators “that every group that is fighting in Iraq trained in Iran, including Al-Qaeda”. This tallies with earlier reports that while Zarqawi was in Iran in 2003 he received training at an IRGC base in Mehran. Put simply: Iran’s regime preferred to assist Zarqawi’s total war on its Shi’a coreligionists in Iraq rather than see a stable, democratic order that was friendly to the West take hold.
Nor has this ended: in Syria, say, Iran is supposedly fighting Al-Qaeda and its derivatives, most prominently Hayat Tahrir al-Sham or HTS (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), yet Iran continues to allow Al-Qaeda’s operatives supposedly in its “custody” to operate the “core pipeline” that nourishes the Qaeda branches in the entire Middle East and North Africa. This arrangement takes place under a “secret deal”, according to the U.S. Treasury, is no small thing: until the killing of Abdullah, Al-Qaeda’s operatives being in Iran had seemed to place them out of political reach, and the Qaedaists in Iran still remain safe from America’s drones.
All of this has been known for a very long time—making it odd that The New York Times would say the discovery of Abdullah in Tehran was “surprising, given that Iran and Al-Qaeda are bitter enemies”. Even stranger is The Times treatment of sectarian differences between “Shi’a” Iran and “Sunni” Al-Qaeda as an insurmountable barrier, a piece of faulty analysis that was overthrown no later than 2002 when Iran’s support for HAMAS became manifest.
The Times really does know better: for instance, it was among the outlets to report on the deal in 2015 that “freed” five Al-Qaeda jihadists, Abdullah, Sayf, and Abu al-Khayr among them. Three of those released, including Abu al-Khayr, went to Syria; it was believed Abdullah and Sayf had also gone to Syria—and it remains possible one or both of them did, briefly—but during the public spat between AQC and Al-Nusra/HTS in 2017 it was revealed that Abdullah and Sayf remained in Iran, described as “the second and third successors”. Assuming that was correct—and surveying Al-Qaeda’s bench there is no reason to doubt it—it would appear to make Sayf, the Qaeda leader on the most intimate terms with IRGC, the winner of this game of survivor.
Sayf the Successor
In the wake of Bin Laden’s downfall in 2011, the charismatic American voice of Al-Qaeda and possible successor Anwar al-Awlaki was cut down, as was the general manager of the group Jamal al-Misrati (Atiyya). Abdurrahman Salim (Yunis al-Mauritani), intended to be the coordinator of the affiliates, was arrested before the end of that year. Rising jihadi star Muhammad Hassan al-Qayed (Abu Yahya al-Libi) was eliminated in 2012 and three years later, the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and overall deputy Nasir al-Wuhayshi (Abu Basir) was taken out. Even a lesser propagandist-recruiter figure like Adam Gadahn (Azzam al-Amriki) was killed in 2015.
Abu al-Khayr, appointed as Al-Zawahiri’s deputy after he left Iran in 2015, was killed in northern Syria, and the “Greater Idlib” area has become a death zone for veteran Al-Qaeda figures. The bloodline heir, Hamza, though never likely to be leader, is gone, and earlier this year the longest-serving head of an affiliate, Abd al-Malek Drukdel (Abu Musab Abd al-Wadud), commander of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was destroyed.
With the removal of Abdullah, Al-Zawahiri, and Abd al-Ra’uf, it leaves Sayf as the last man standing of this cadre of Egyptians, men now in their late 50s and 60s, who have their origins in Islamic Jihad (EIJ) and the war against the regime in Cairo, before they took to the road after the serial crackdowns and were forged into the core of Al-Qaeda.
In terms of what to expect from an Al-Qaeda led by Sayf, predictions are notoriously difficult, especially about the future. There are some pieces of evidence from Sayf’s past that would seem to be the best indicators of his future conduct. One notable element, whether it is his planning of terrorist operations and his opposition to the 9/11 attacks or his request that Khaled Shaykh Muhammad resign in 2002: Sayf is reality-based; he is a pragmatic fanatic, able to discern when an action will have too high a cost. This tendency is likely to be reinforced by his age (roughly 60), though this element of caution should not be mistaken for moderation: Sayf was close to Zarqawi—he even profiled him—and the two collaborated in planning much of the strategy for the IS movement in the early- and mid-2000s.
Beyond his own inclinations, Sayf would take the helm of an organisation that has been radically remade since 2011, let alone 2001. Whatever doubts there are about AQAP’s involvement in the Charlie Hebdo attack, the Pensacola attack in the U.S. in December 2019 shows that Al-Qaeda retains the ability for attacks in the West. Reports in Israeli media say Abdullah was planning attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets in his last days. The days of 9/11-scale atrocities are over, however, and the dynamics within Al-Qaeda currently disfavour even Pensacola-type attacks on any kind of regular basis.
Al-Qaeda is much more decentralised at this stage, and these shifts in battlefield necessity have come along with ideological mutations that make the focus of jihadism more local. It is in this environment, particularly in Africa, where the next leader of Al-Qaeda will find their most fertile ground. The same might also be said of Iran, which already has a strong influence over Al-Shabab, Al-Qaeda’s Somali branch, whose leader has been “indisposed for some time”. Instability across the Maghreb will continue to furnish opportunities for jihadism, as will new trouble-spots flaring up in Morocco and Ethiopia, drawing in contending powers and their strategic-ideological agendas.