Last Thursday's column highlighted the growing threat of Al Qaeda using Afghanistan as a training and launching ground for more brazen attacks following Biden's disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan. It also highlighted the recently confirmed active status of the group's leader Aiman Al-Zawahiri and his apparent approval of the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan and called President Biden out for failing to use his flaunted "over the horizon" capabilities to hit Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. By Saturday night, whether he's a Townhall VIP member or not, Biden had done exactly what last week's column called for, striking a home in Kabul and killing Zawahiri. That's good for America, but it also creates new uncertainties about who will lead Al Qaeda now that bin Laden's successor has joined him in hell.
Bin Laden's reign of terror speaks for itself. Zawahiri's role in the 9/11 attacks and other deadly plots against U.S. interests abroad made his intentions clear. But after his death, the organization responsible for numerous attacks on the United States and its interests is in need of a leader, one that will determine its next steps, future plans, and how much of a threat the next iteration of AQ will pose to the U.S.
Without an immediate heir-apparent, there are a few likely prospects, including Saif al-Adel, to be Al Qaeda's next leader. Born in Egypt, al-Adel is a veteran AQ commander who has "extensive experience as a military operative," according to the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT).
Interestingly, al-Adel was reportedly a vocal opponent to bin Laden and Zawahiri's plans for 9/11 and feared an attack of that scale on U.S. soil would lead to a merciless response and anger the Taliban government in Afghanistan where they were operating. His past hesitance to attack America at home could make him something of a agenda-shifter for Al Qaeda, but he's also showed a resistance to prominence that could make him unlikely to succeed as a figurehead leader for Al Qaeda around the world.
Recent reports on al-Adel have highlighted another potential issue: he may not be welcomed to Afghanistan — from Iran where he reportedly is currently — by the country's Taliban leaders due to the negative attention — and likelihood of more U.S. strikes like the one that took out Zawahiri — his presence would bring.
Another potential new leader is Zawahiri's son-in-law, Abd al-Rahman al-Maghribi, who is in charge of Al Qaeda's media committee. He's also the closest thing Al Qaeda has to the initial presumptive successor Hamza bin Laden, Osama's son. Maghribi's prominence and family ties to Zawahriri make him something of an heir who has the ability to continue communicating the terrorist group's priorities while assuming the mantle of his father-in-law.
Maghribi was born in Morocco and studied computer programming in Cologne, Germany in the late 1990s before going to Afghanistan for training at an Al Qaeda camp located near Kandahar. Maghribi was pulled from training at the reported request of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad (KSM) who was then the head of Al Qaeda's media committee. Working with KSM, Maghrebi had a "brilliant" career. When Afghanistan fell in 2001, he fled to Iran and later found his way to Pakistan.
There is also a chance Al Qaeda's next leader could be a smaller fish according to ICCT, potentially with more direct ties to Afghanistan where the Taliban's takeover has made conditions once more generally favorable to AQ's use.
In that vein is Abu Ikhlas al-Masri, the Egyptian national former first amir of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Masri was captured in a U.S.-led raid in late 2010 and imprisoned until he was reportedly freed during the Taliban's advance toward Kabul almost exactly one year ago. Before his capture, Masri was an operations commander in Afghanistan's Kunar Province northeast of Kabul along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Despite his imprisonment for more than one decade, Masri kept up his network in Kunar Province and the eastern portion of Afghanistan through connections he made by marrying into local tribes.
From the same general region within Afghanistan is Amin Muhammad ul Haq Saam Khan, who led Al Qaeda's "Black Guard" security force tasked with protecting Osama bin Laden according to the Counter Extremism Project. Despite seemingly failing at his one-time mission — bin Laden was killed in Pakistan by U.S. forces in 2011 — Khan returned to Afghanistan, setting up shop in Jalalabad, after the Taliban took Kabul last August. Now, he reportedly "commands hundreds of al-Qaeda fighters," setting Khan up as another potential Zawahiri successor.
Whoever steps forward to lead Al Qaeda following the death of Zawahiri could face challenges to their authority posed by regional leaders, could be more extreme and ambitious than the reportedly ailing Zawahiri was or could try to change tact or align itself with another group. The new leader is bound to operate differently than Zawahiri was in his final days — or the new chief would be vulnerable to meet the same end — but the reality in Afghanistan remains unchanged. The next leader, as Zawahiri was, "may be able to lead more effectively than was possible before the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan" and will likely use "the Taliban's takeover to attract new recruits and funding and inspire… affiliates globally."