As much as the term “terrorism” is contested, Joe Biden’s notion of “justice” is also debatable. On 1 August 2022, Joe Biden announced in his press briefing that “Justice has been delivered” while confirming the death of Al-Qaeda’s emir Ayman Al-Zawahiri at the hands of a United States drone strike in Kabul. If killing the leader of a fundamental religious organisation could serve justice, it would have been served a decade ago with the assassination of Osama bin Laden. The truth is that Al-Qaeda did not cease to exist on 31 July 2022 as it never did on 2 May 2011. Organisations like Al-Qaeda are aware of their vulnerabilities, so their leaders are always prepared to ensure that the organisation survives their death. Hence, overestimating Zawahiri’s death can be erroneous because his death may have little consequence on the future of Al-Qaeda as the organisation thrives on ideology, not its leadership alone.
Zawahiri was announced as the leader of Al-Qaeda on 16 June 2011. Acknowledged as the “brains of Al-Qaeda”, Zawahiri possessed excellent organisational and strategic skills. The Egyptian eye surgeon climbed the ladder to the top of the world’s deadliest terrorist organisation by gaining his inspiration from the Sayyid Qutub and through his acquaintance with bin Laden while serving as a doctor in Red Crescent for treating the Mujahideen during the Soviet War. He became so important to the organisation that he was known to be the person that bin Laden always looked up to.
A new leader may be able to attract the former Islamic State (IS) members back into Al-Qaeda, which can prove to be counterproductive for the United States in the long term.
The immediate challenges for Al-Qaeda after Zawahiri’s death are similar to what Zawahiri himself faced after bin Laden’s assassination, i.e., escaping the same fate as Zawahiri, avenging Zawahiri’s death and re-establishing the confidence in the organisation. According to several reports, Saif Al-Adl, a former Egyptian commando and Al-Qaeda’s intelligence leader, is likely to be the third emir of Al-Qaeda. His unwavering loyalty and efficiency make him the best potential candidate to succeed Zawahiri. However, the successor is not yet confirmed by Al-Qaeda. Whoever the potential successor to Zawahiri may be, it is most likely that to establish credibility and gain attention, the new leader of Al-Qaeda will go offensive on the United States and its allies. A potential attack to target the United States in any way will accomplish all the immediate tasks at hand for the Al-Qaeda leadership, i.e., revenge and gaining back confidence in the organisation.
Although Zawahiri’s killing is symbolically a huge achievement for United States counterterrorism efforts, if a more charismatic and ruthless leader with an improvised and strengthened approach arises in Al-Qaeda, this might just pave the way for the resurgence of a stronger Al-Qaeda. Some people believe that Zawahiri was an efficient leader that Al-Qaeda needed, but some criticise him for lacking the mass appeal that bin Laden enjoyed. The criticism within the group is based on his inability to practically manifest his rhetorical focus on the west through any major terrorist event. Hence, Zawahiri’s death will be an opportunity for Al-Qaeda to develop a new approach toward its organisational conduct. A new leader may be able to attract the former Islamic State (IS) members back into Al-Qaeda, which can prove to be counterproductive for the United States in the long term.
In terrorist groups’ succession, there is a variety of leadership types that may bring changes in either the “why,” i.e., the agenda of the organisation or the “how,” i.e., the tactics of the organisation. The potential successor to Zawahiri is anticipated to be the “fixer” in his leadership style. A fixer is a leader who does not change the agenda but changes the ways of resource mobilisation and tactics. This is what Al-Qaeda exactly needs at the moment. With the increasing sophistication in counterterrorism strategies, tactics and weapons – the organisation urgently needs to improvise its own tactics. Besides, according to studies, the death of a terrorist organisation’s leaders is less likely to affect the rate of terrorist attacks, let alone cause organisational collapse. Another reason why Zawahiri’s assassination is less likely to affect Al-Qaeda is due to its organisational resilience. According to the theory of organisational resilience, terrorist organisations are likely to survive the attack on leadership if they have a highly bureaucratised organisational structure and have greater popular support, both of which are present in the case of Al-Qaeda.
Coming back to the question of whether “justice” has been delivered or not – it is complicated. And even if justice has been delivered, one must reassess to whom this justice has been delivered and at what cost. If the justice has been delivered to the families of the 9/11 victims and if this is the justice they needed, they already have had it delivered with bin Laden’s killing. But, their justice is due for as long as Al-Qaeda exists. Moreover, the cost of the delivered justice might be more than the United States is ready for. Zawahiri’s assassination has already created alarming caution among United States citizens at home and abroad. They have been advised to be aware of increased anti-American violence and be vigilant, especially while travelling abroad. This is not to say that the attack has no symbolic value. In fact, it is a significant blow to Al-Qaeda, but the major concern here is that the threat is not eliminated with the Zawahiri assassination. The roots of Al-Qaeda are way deeper, and the new dimensions of the organisation’s leadership are about to unfold.