Over nine months after Ayman al-Zawahiri’s death, al-Qaeda has still not announced his successor. There is a general consensus that veteran al-Qaeda operative Sayf al-Adl has become the group’s de facto leader. But al-Qaeda has not formalized the arrangement, presumably to avoid any backlash from the Taliban, which has not acknowledged al-Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul, and to sidestep the thorny questions about al-Adl’s alleged presence in Iran. Perhaps surprisingly, al-Qaeda’s affiliates have seemingly accepted this status quo with limited dissension, at least publicly. This equilibrium raises the question: does it matter to al-Qaeda’s affiliates if al-Qaeda ever publicly announces a new emir?
For the time being, the answer appears to be no. Sayf al-Adl acting in the role without a public announcement may be al-Qaeda’s best option as it attempts to rebuild. But this arrangement will become more problematic for its relationships with affiliates when the leader of an al-Qaeda affiliate dies, is arrested, or replaced.
Al-Qaeda’s affiliate relationships in particular rest on a pledge of bayat. Specifically, the leader of an affiliate declares loyalty to al-Qaeda’s emir. But a declaration of fealty alone is not enough. Numerous groups have pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda but have not become affiliates. Equally important, al-Qaeda’s emir must then acknowledge and accept that pledge. Some affiliates have changed their names in the affiliation process, though not all.
This bayat exchange has typically been done publicly. But there have been exceptions. At al-Qaeda’s request, al-Shabaab operated as an unrecognised affiliate for several years under Ahmed Abdi Godane’s leadership, though he agitated for al-Shabaab to be publicly announced as an al-Qaeda affiliate. However, Osama bin Laden justified the decision by telling al-Shabaab’s leader that a public affiliation would increase the counter-terrorism pressure on al-Shabaab and limit its fundraising. It was not until after bin Laden was killed and al-Zawahiri rose to the helm that al-Qaeda recognised al-Shabaab as an al-Qaeda affiliate in 2012.
The affiliate leader’s pledge and acknowledgement of it by al-Qaeda’s emir is the cornerstone of the affiliate alliance arrangement for al-Qaeda, as well as for the Islamic State. The affiliate alliance is not a declaration from one organisation to another; it is specifically an exchange among the leader of the affiliate and al-Qaeda’s leader. This pledge among leaders distinguishes affiliate relationships from al-Qaeda’s other relationships. Without the declaration of bayat and reciprocal acknowledgement of it, affiliates simply become allies.
The bayat for affiliation is not merely a formality. It is a religiously binding oath. Making the declaration publicly further reinforces its binding power. When the Islamic State tried to woo al-Qaeda’s affiliates after al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate, the affiliates’ standing bayats to Zawahiri were among the factors that made defection difficult. Indeed, none of al-Qaeda’s affiliates broke ties with al-Qaeda and became affiliates of the Islamic State. Breaking the religiously binding pledge could harm a leader’s credibility amongst his rank and file.
Thus, Sayf al-Adl acting as an unannounced de facto leader is working for al-Qaeda and its affiliates for now. But it will become more problematic when the leader of one of the affiliates dies. In particular, there have been persistent rumors that al-Shabaab’s leader is quite ill. And all of the affiliates have lost at least one leader since pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda. Once there is a change in an affiliate’s leader, al-Qaeda will have to decide if the benefits of an undeclared emir are worth the cost of losing an affiliate relationship, at least publicly. And that question will arise yet again when other affiliates lose their leaders. As al-Qaeda core’s direct ties to its affiliates weaken over time with losses, the public bayat will become increasingly important to securing ties, perhaps even important enough to suffer the costs of declaring a leader in Iran or defying the Taliban.