Questions of succession loom large for al-Qaeda. By most accounts, al-Qaeda leader Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri is alive, but in poor health, and thus questions of succession loom large for the group. This succession—when it occurs—would mark only the second leadership transition for al-Qaeda in its more than 30-year existence. During his time as al-Qaeda’s leader, al-Zawahiri persisted in following the blueprint developed by Usama bin Laden. In so doing, he provided a degree of consistency for the group, which has faced unprecedented counter-terrorism (CT) pressure since 2001. At the same time, his approach to leadership and the CT environment the group faced made it difficult, perhaps impossible, for al-Zawahiri to rejuvenate the beleaguered organisation. Such are the trade-offs of what we call a ‘caretaker leader’. While many have criticised al-Zawahiri’s characteristics as a leader, we argue that rather than focusing on al-Zawahiri or his potential successor’s personality traits, the more critical question to examine is what type of leader al-Zawahiri has been and what type his eventual successor could be.
Usama bin Laden’s leadership is well-documented, as the group’s founder, but the leadership role of his successor has been less explored. Why does this matter? Succession is a critical juncture that all terrorist groups must reckon with if they survive long enough. These transitions can potentially threaten the very survival of the group, or at least force a reckoning of how to function in the founder’s wake. Based on our forthcoming book, Terror in Transition, we put forward an analysis of where the group stands right now, what role al-Zawahiri played in al-Qaeda, and what possible roles the next successor might fill. We conclude with counter-terrorism implications for each possible type of successor to help guide action against the group following this transition.
Snapshot of al-Qaeda today
Despite extensive criticism of al-Zawahiri as uncharismatic, fractious [p.256], and overall incompetent [p.47], al-Zawahiri has been a steadfast steward of bin Laden’s legacy for al-Qaeda—leading some to comment that, “if Osama bin Laden were alive today, he’d likely be a happy man.” The al-Qaeda of today has, primarily through its affiliates, expanded geographically, increased its strength in places like Yemen, Syria, and sub-Saharan Africa, and remained a leader within the jihadist community. But al-Qaeda core has experienced significant losses. Though it now enjoys safe haven in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime, the US Intelligence Community assesses it lacks the capability to conduct major transnational attacks, a hallmark of al-Qaeda’s approach.
Al-Zawahiri: Leader of al-Qaeda
Past experience offers less insight than one would expect into what kind of leader al-Zawahiri has been for al-Qaeda. Al-Zawahiri has functioned very differently at the head of al-Qaeda than when leading his previous group, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ). During his tenure as emir of EIJ, he engaged in a series of terrorist attacks in Egypt that alienated its constituency, exacerbated internal divisions, and provoked intense CT pressure—all of which forced EIJ to abandon its founding mission [p.10-11] in Egypt and eventually merge with al-Qaeda.
Unlike the disruptive changes he made in EIJ’s tactics and mission, al-Zawahiri did not opt to fundamentally change al-Qaeda. Instead, he reinforced bin Laden’s vision by “set[ting] in motion... a widespread awakening in different parts of the Muslim world” and embracing a global mission prioritising the US rather than returning to a narrow focus on Egypt. He continued bin Laden’s invocation that jihad was an individual duty incumbent on all Muslims. Overall, al-Zawahiri’s difficult personality and lack of charisma did not necessarily change, but the type of leader he was did change several times during his tenure as the leader of EIJ and then al-Qaeda, which points to a need for a way to assess successors that moves beyond personality characteristics.
Framework for Understanding Leadership
We argue first that the role of the founder must be carefully understood in a consistent way. Given the importance of the founder in creating the group’s framing, tactics, and resource mobilisation —the why and the how of the group—the founder creates a foundation from which the successors operate. We argue the type of leader that comes next depends, above all, on how the successor positions himself vis-à-vis the founder. He may consider his relationship with the founder, under what conditions the founder ceased being the leader of the group, the state of inter- and intra-group dynamics, and the intensity of the CT environment. Lastly, we argue that each successor decides to either proceed with incremental changes that adapt the group’s fundamental goals and means, or with discontinuous changes that significantly upend the group’s framing of its mission, its tactics, the way it mobilises resources, or all of the above. A successor’s decision to undertake discontinuous innovations need not amount to a rejection of the founder, but it does produce substantive change for the organisation.
Why Every enduring terrorist group needs a convincing answer to the question why. Why fight? What is the group’s raison d’être? What is worth dying for? Without answers to those questions, the terrorist organisation will struggle to thrive or even survive. The why is how the group explains its mission; the why is the goal it articulates; the why is what the group declares it wants to achieve. How The how of a terrorist group refers to the means they choose to achieve the why framing. How will groups mobilise resources to achieve their mission? What tactics, both operational and non-operational, will they use? For instance, violence is an important tactic for terrorist groups: why choose to engage violently, non-violently, or a combination of both to affect change? Successor Types The interaction of these factors—incremental or discontinuous change relative to the founder’s how and why—produces five types of successors: the caretaker, signaler, fixer, visionary, and figurehead.
|Leadership Type||Change to the Why||Change to the How|
|Figurehead||Leader absent||Leader absent|
- Caretaker: when the successor seeks to continue the trajectory of the founder with only incremental changes in framing and tactics and resource mobilisation, the leader is a caretaker.
- Signaler: a successor who makes discontinuous changes to the framing, meaning the rhetoric, propaganda, and messaging used to explain a group’s why, is a signaler.
- Fixer: when a successor oversees discontinuous changes to tactics and resource mobilisation, which represents a group’s how, the result is a fixer.
- Visionary: a leader who makes discontinuous changes to both the framing and tactics and resource mobilisation, the why and the how, is a visionary.
- Figurehead: when leaders do not actively choose change or continuity, they are figureheads. In this case, a leader exists, but they are unwilling or unable to make the key decisions for the organisation.
During his tenure with EIJ, al-Zawahiri first functioned as a fixer, straying from founder Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Faraj’s how [p.84]. He adopted suicide operations and striking Egyptian interests overseas, such as the Egyptian Embassy in Pakistan; changes made in light of a CT reality that the group had lost its ability to conduct attacks in Egypt. He ultimately moved into a visionary role by advocating that the group pursue bin Laden’s global jihad agenda over their original focus on Egypt, resulting in a change in mission and a merger [p.4] with al-Qaeda. However, while at the helm of al-Qaeda, al-Zawahiri represents a clear-cut caretaker of bin Laden’s legacy. He has had missteps as a leader than bin Laden was unlikely to make—for example, his failure to prevent the split with the Islamic State—but he has continued the how and the why established by bin Laden.
While al-Zawahiri was the clear successor to bin Laden, there is debate about who will succeed al-Zawahiri. For example, there has long been speculation about the eventual leadership of Saif al-Adel, a veteran Egyptian commando and long-time member of al-Qaeda who was once tasked to work with the equally abrasive Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Given his extensive experience as a military operative and his role in operational planning, which reportedly included opposition to the 9/11 attacks, it is possible he could serve as a fixer for the group, a leader who changes the how. However, al-Adel has historically preferred to keep a low profile in his military and intelligence roles, pointing to a possible, though less likely, future as a figurehead if he becomes emir. Little is known about his current activities, but recent UN reports assess that if he tries to openly relocate to Afghanistan, he may face resistance from the Taliban government, given the international pressure his move would cause.
Others have speculated that Abd al-Rahman al-Maghribi, head of al-Qaeda’s Media Committee, may take the reins instead. For his part, al-Maghribi is al-Zawahiri’s son-in-law, reflecting a familial relationship similar to the one which once made Hamza bin Laden, Usama’s son, previously the most eligible heir to al-Qaeda’s leadership before his death. Such authority and prestige can be passed down [p.173], and caretakers can emerge in a group where the potential successor possesses familial bonds with the founder or when the successor has faithfully served under the previous leader. These familial bonds—as well as his experience in running al-Qaeda’s global media—may give him the “bona fides” to assume this leadership role.
Finally, precedent also exists for groups to choose a dark horse successor, as al-Shabaab did with the successor to its founder, Abu Ubaydah. Some such successors in al-Qaeda are known already to law enforcement and intelligence agencies—such as Abu Ikhlas al-Masri, an Egyptian leader operations commander, or Amin Muhammad ul Haq Saam Khan, the former security coordinator for Usama bin Laden—while others remain unknowable. While it is uncertain who will rise to the top spot, our analysis of al-Zawahiri and his variation as a leader demonstrates that even knowing the individual provides only so much information about the type of leader he will be. Therefore, we argue that it is less important to ask who al-Zawahiri’s successor will be, and rather to ask what type of leader he will be.
Potential Future Leadership Directions for al-Qaeda
Given the uncertainty around the next leader and the possibility that even a known leader may adopt a very different leadership role once in charge—as al-Zawahiri did—we present the possible leadership directions for al-Qaeda, as well as the CT options based on each role.
- Caretaker outcome: 32 percent of all terrorist successors were caretakers, or those who make only minimal changes to the how and the why established by the founder. But the stability that comes with a caretaker also means that they risk failing to adapt to changes in the environment or, in the case of al-Qaeda, the jihadist landscape. Having a caretaker succeed al-Zawahiri—who was himself criticised for being out of touch—may prevent al-Qaeda core from recovering in its safe haven in Afghanistan due to a lack of innovation in ideology, tactics, and recruitment.
- Fixer outcome: Fixers—who make disruptive changes to the how—present a CT opportunity to highlight hypocrisy in the mismatch of newly adopted tactics and the blueprint of the founder. In the case of al-Zawahiri’s role as a fixer in EIJ, his leadership led to increased civilian deaths and damage to EIJ’s image among Egyptians, thus turning public opinion and even some EIJ members against him. Fixers can erode constituent support and create internal cleavages among members. However, in the case of al-Qaeda, abandoning the group’s signature mass-casualty, high profile attacks would allow it to conduct operations more frequently but with less impact. A fixer’s adoption of new technology as a tactic would also likely come with a significant learning curve, benefitting CT operations.
- Signaler outcome: Signalers—who make disruptive changes to the why—can also create divisions within the organisation. One potential signaler outcome would be to move towards an ideology more focused on local conflicts over global jihad, as affiliates have often done. CT strategies here can highlight disparities between local affiliates and global goals to dissuade would-be supporters who may be more interested in global jihad. This also means that partnerships with countries where affiliates are active will be especially crucial in a successful CT strategy.
- Visionary outcome: Visionaries introduce radical departures in the how and the why. These changes may revitalise the organisation by, in this case, attracting a new, younger generation that is not as tied to the unifying figure of bin Laden. On the other hand, visionaries can equally introduce and reflect divisiveness into the groups they are leading. In either case, disruptive changes also offer significant CT opportunities to drive wedges between members within a group, between the group itself and with its constituency, or between itself and its allies. Off-ramp CT strategies may provide the best chance of success here, such as amnesty initiatives or other efforts that allow members out of the organisation as it diverged from their original expectations.
- Figurehead outcome: Leaders who do not actively choose change or continuity with the founder introduce the likelihood of a disjointed, chaotic future path for al-Qaeda. Without direction, a group can be set adrift or riddled with divisions. Arguably, if al-Zawahiri’s ailments render him unfit to lead, al-Qaeda may soon move into this space, if it is not already there. One possible CT strategy may be to leave figurehead leaders in place to foment these divisions and sow chaos.
Al-Zawahiri’s successor will have to make choices about how much continuity or change to make to the how and why that bin Laden established decades ago. Understanding the possible roles that terrorist successors play is thus essential to that effort. Succession is a process that all terrorist groups must reckon with, if they survive long enough. Al-Qaeda has survived for nearly three decades, but it has only experienced one leadership transition. The next leader may be the difference between a resurgent al-Qaeda and one that drifts into obscurity.
*The authors would like to thank Sarah Moore, M.A. candidate in the in the Security Studies Program in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, for her excellent work in the research, analysis, and production of this article.