Generation Killed: The Challenges of Routinizing Global Jihad

bin laden and zawahiri(1)

In the past year, U.S. forces killed the top leaders of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in bold over-the-horizon raids: Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul earlier this month and Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim in Syria last February. In addition to their leadership roles, these men were also members of the founding generation of their respective groups. The killing of al-Zawahiri and Abu Ibrahim is an opportunity to contrast how two groups vying to direct the global jihad manage the leadership and organizational challenges that emerge when revolutionary groups lose their founding generation.

The inspirational and visionary contributions of charismatic founders are immense, and the loss of such leaders presents profound challenges for their organizations. In addition to serving as charismatic figureheads, the founding generation plays a crucial role in establishing plans for leadership succession. When such plans are well-laid and synchronized with broader organizational goals, leadership succession transforms from a singular, inherently disruptive event into a routine that can reinforce the new leader’s credibility. Routine succession, in turn, helps to ensure not just the survivability of a group but its resilience in pursuing its objectives over time.



Al-Qaeda and Islamic State are a study in contrasts. Al-Qaeda approached its only succession to date in keeping with the loose character of its vanguard role­­: The charismatic founder, Osama bin Laden, selected his deputy, al-Zawahiri, as successor. It is unclear if al-Qaeda have a published doctrine to support the selection of al-Zawahiri’s successor. In contrast, the Islamic State tied its first succession after the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to the process of declaring and then building a proto-state structure. The Islamic State has since presented its leaders as the head of the caliphate to maximize their legitimacy. It is an approach that the movement has used to successfully manage three forced leadership transitions to date.

We argue that al-Qaeda’s al-Zawahiri-era epitomizes several trends that are crucial for understanding violent non-state groups and the impact of leadership strikes on them: the tendency for such groups to emerge with a charismatic founder, the challenges and opportunities that arise when the charismatic founder is removed, and the first generation’s responsibility to layout leadership and organizational plans. Al-Qaeda’s missed opportunities to routinize leadership succession will continue to have an outsized role in determining how it moves on from its current leadership crisis, and weaken it in the ongoing struggle with the Islamic State for jihadi prominence.

The Charismatic’s Curse  

Charismatic leadership is perhaps the most cited and least understood form of authority. People need a reason to consent to the authority of a leader, to listen to what they have to say and to shape their behavior, attitudes, and even beliefs accordingly. In contrast to leaders that are followed due to satisfying tradition (birthright in a monarchy), a legal process (election in a democracy), or their position on an organizational chart (manager in a bureaucracy), charismatic leaders generate their influence from being seen as having extraordinary traits that uniquely imbue them with the ability to lead through extraordinary times. Charismatic leaders emerge during times of crisis, establishing their authority with visions for how to understand and solve them. Thus, charisma is an inherently volatile and potentially fickle form of leadership. It can also be extraordinarily strong and impactful, creating legacies in movements that future generations seek to emulate and revive. The blessing and curse of charismatic leadership is that it is temporary, subsequently requiring either the rise of a new charismatic figure or, more commonly, the implementation of a succession plan.

Almost inevitably, violent non-state revolutionary groups tend to be founded by charismatic figures. Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi epitomise this trend. Both men, in their own ways, presented themselves as the embodiment of their group’s values and purpose. People mobilised from different corners of the world inspired by their vision of global jihad. Moreover, both leaders relied on a close inner circle of minders and propagandists to help them construct and project their image and narrative to supporters.

Typically, inspirational leaders do not make effective strategists and managers. Yet it is the latter that are vital for not just the day-to-day running of a terrorist or insurgent organization but putting in place procedures for the future. After all, merely surviving through the first generation is an immense challenge for violent non-state political groups. But the group’s ability to maintain its purpose over time, what we call “resilience,” appears to be heavily reliant on the first-generation establishing leadership and organzsational routinization practices.

One of the first major tests of resiliency follows the death of the founding charismatic figure. In many important ways, the future fortunes of the Islamic State movement and al-Qaeda were fundamentally shaped by what happened in the aftermath of U.S. strikes. For the Islamic State, that moment came relatively early when al-Zarqawi was killed and, its succession plan in shambles, the group prepared to develop a more robust structure. Consequently, at the vital moment in which the charismatic founder was removed, the organization’s cadre of strategists, managers, and ideologues established succession plans in accordance with their political objectives. In the Islamic State movement, al-Zarqawi’s death was exploited as an opportunity to routinize the group’s structure and practices and provide for future stability.

Al-Qaeda’s 2011 transition was different. Bin Laden’s global charismatic appeal had been vital for cohering a diverse network of formal and aspiring affiliates, supportive groups, and individuals, for well over a decade. But as al-Qaeda’s charismatic founder went into hiding — emerging intermittently to inspire the faithful and, in the latter years, provide “proof of life” — the group’s senior leaders (including the indispensable Atiyah Abd al-Rahman) were being decimated by counterterrorism strikes. Put another way, as the group’s charismatic founder hid in Pakistan, its organizational strata were being eliminated. This in turn exacerbated the vacuum left when bin Laden was killed and created the backdrop for al-Zawahiri’s succession to the top spot.

A Tale of Two Successions: Al-Zawahiri’s Rise in Context

Ayman al-Zawahiri became the leader of al-Qaeda in the most consequential year in the modern jihadist struggle. In 2011, the United States devastated the group’s leadership, killing bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, and Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, the Arab Spring protests threatened authoritarian regimes throughout the region, and the United States withdrew military forces from Iraq. Al-Zawahiri, who served as deputy for the group, succeeded bin Laden, who had struggled to maintain unity and cohesion in the final years of his life. These struggles continued under al-Zawahiri, who saw two major franchises in Iraq and Syria — critical battlefronts at the time — break away in very different manners to form independent groups. Al-Zawahiri’s mishandling of the Islamic State led to a splinter and the rise of a formidable rival. Despite these significant setbacks, al-Zawahiri held al-Qaeda’s global network together for another decade.

In the event of Osama bin Laden’s death, al-Qaeda’s succession plan was essentially that al-Zawahiri, as deputy, was predesignated by the charismatic founder to succeed him. Valid criticisms of al-Zawahiri’s tenure note his focus on ideological issues over operational details and his publicly hands-off management style, but criticisms of his boring speeches typically miss the point. In the aftermath of a charismatic figure, the successor does not need to be charismatic, but the rationale for their succession and authority does need to be explained. Not everyone can be the type of transformative figure Osama bin Laden was for al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda had organizationally routinized its structure into a functioning global enterprise with affiliates around the world but had not done the same with its succession plans. The group’s failure was not in selecting al-Zawahiri to follow a legend. It was in failing to establish a leadership succession doctrine that would appropriately present al-Zawahiri as a different type of leader who rose via a credible succession process that would become routine in the future. More than that, its leadership succession practices needed to complement and enable its broader organizational intent. Al-Zawahiri’s floundering in the wake of bin Laden’s death was not just a product of his personal flaws. It also reflected an ad-hoc approach to leadership and organizational routinization with little depth behind it.

The Islamic State’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, also had a charismatic founder — Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — who led the group’s meteoric rise in occupied Iraq after he pledged to bin Laden in 2004. Al-Zarqawi was killed in an American air strike in June 2006, and al-Qaeda in Iraq elevated al-Zarqawi’s long-time deputy, the Egyptian Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, in a succession process reminiscent of the shift from bin Laden to his deputy al-Zawahiri. However, as a foreigner in Iraq’s contested Sunni militant milieu, al-Muhajir’s elevation was seen by the group as unlikely to solve its growing political problems. Heavy counter-terrorism pressure by American special operations forces led to a diminished leadership bench and forced the group to develop a new leadership succession doctrine that transformed its loose confederation of factions into a proto-state with shadow cabinets called the Islamic State of Iraq.

In accordance with this approach, the newly established Islamic State announced it had a new leader — Abu Umar al-Baghdadi — a descendent of Mohammad’s Quraysh tribe elected by a shura council made up of representatives of all constituent groups in October 2006. For good measure, it then had al-Muhajir pledge allegiance to Abu Umar and serve as his war minister.

To provide a legal justification for this dramatic shift, the group’s religious council released a publication called “Informing the People about the Birth of the Islamic State of Iraq.” In the document, the authors laid out both a justification for an Islamic State and its associated bureaucracy (like the Department of Agriculture) as well as its rationale for selecting a proto-caliph. The criterion was lifted from history and jurisprudence, aping the early caliphate’s reliance on a council of societal elites who selected a leader from the members of the Prophet Mohammad’s Quraysh tribe. The Islamic State followed this publication with announcements vouching for Abu Umar al-Baghdadi’s tribal lineage, his experience fighting their enemies, and his election by group leaders and tribal authorities. They asked fighters and supporters to trust them, as Abu Umar was a new kunya, or honorific, for a current high-level member of the shura council whose identity they wanted to remain anonymous. The group faced sharp critiques over the selection of an anonymous leader and the unilateral declaration of the Islamic State of Iraq. But through the persistent projection and repetition of this succession process, it was able to transition into a more stable politico-military movement with the goal of eventually establishing a caliphate.

The Islamic State’s leadership succession practice, both then and now, succeeded because its founding generation linked it to the creation of a “state” that emulated early Islamic practice to project legitimacy. Building a state, even a shadow state, facilitated an aggregation of other legitimacy sources: election by elites, service to the group, and traditional tribal ties. This approach, carefully created in crisis, has been relied on many times since to transition leaders after targeted killings. In contrast, the bin Laden-al-Zawahiri transition left al-Zawahiri without a robust rationale for his ascension and facing lingering uncertainties about future leadership succession.

Al-Qaeda’s Ambiguity Problem

Al-Qaeda has been dogged by jurisprudential and strategic ambiguity throughout its history, unlike the Islamic State’s single-minded focus on creating a caliphate originating in Iraq and Syria. This ambiguity is understandable in the nascent years of a militant group when it is still working out its capabilities and role. For al-Qaeda, ambiguity may even have been part of its appeal when it was led by bin Laden, when it served as the undisputed flagship of global jihad and when it was able to draw from a diverse set of ideological trends. Al-Qaeda presented itself as a vanguard for the global ummah that would deploy resources and experts to support local jihadist struggles. It championed a comparatively gradualist approach to establishing an Islamic state while subordinating ultimate jurisprudential authority to former Taliban leader Mullah Omar. In contrast, the Islamic State’s leaders argued that all measures should be taken to establish the global caliphate with ultimate authority resting in its leader as caliph — no qualifier, no caveats.

Al-Qaeda’s strategic evolution contributed to its ambiguities. For its first decade, al-Qaeda relied on the wealth of its figurehead to sustain and build its global networks. After the 1998 Tanzania and Kenya attacks, and all the more so after 9/11, bin Laden’s charismatic capital was more powerful than even his (dwindling personal) wealth and it fueled the unprecedented expansion of his al-Qaeda networks. Islamic State founder al-Zarqawi joined al-Qaeda for this reason, largely to compete with more powerful rivals in Iraq. In the final years of bin Laden’s era, it was mostly his legacy that sustained the al-Qaeda network.

This context is vital for understanding the predicament that faced his aging successor al-Zawahiri. The one point of clarity for al-Qaeda was the centrality of bin Laden and his charismatic appeal: It was the gravitational force that held al-Qaeda together. The succession process of a figurehead leader is vital for projecting credibility and authority. It is inherently different, or at least it should be, from succession practices in a bureaucracy whereby the inhabitants of cells in an organization chart merely shift up as leaders are removed or move on. Yet al-Qaeda adopted a chain of succession that, for all intents and purposes, was typical of a bureaucracy. The problem is that in the immense vacuum created in the wake of bin Laden’s killing (despite his years of solitude in Pakistan), al-Qaeda needed to provide clarity around its successor and the organization’s direction. Al-Zawahiri offered neither of these things.

Without a doctrine for succession, al-Zawahiri’s authority was limited to being the pick of bin Laden, a transfer of authority from charismatic founder to deputy. Al-Qaeda did not clearly explain the source of al-Zawahiri’s authority or how will it be passed on to his successor. Al-Zawahiri did not have the heroic battlefield reputation and oratory skills that tend to typify jihadi charismatic figures. He was not presented by al-Qaeda as a religious scholar, nor did he have the formal religious qualifications of a scholar, even if he acted in that role during his leadership of the group. Without these traits, he could never have that most revered of images in the jihadi milieu: the warrior-scholar. Given al-Zawahiri’s long history as a jihadist, al-Qaeda could have presented him as the elder statesman of jihad and his long meandering speeches may have been excused given his history and focus on working the backrooms as a negotiator and fundraiser. Al-Qaeda could have then elevated secondary leaders or those from across its affiliates to amplify their figurehead’s prestige and messaging while simultaneously projecting a global, dynamic image.

Analyzed in isolation, the challenges al-Zawahiri faced were significant — but these were exacerbated by the rise of the Islamic State, which exploited all these vulnerabilities. Indeed, it was almost as if the Islamic State, just as it had postured for U.S. withdrawal in 2011, had similarly positioned itself for the inevitable death of bin Laden and the opportunity this would create in the global jihadist milieu.

Whither Al-Qaeda?

The Islamic State has always elected anonymous leaders. It assures followers it is abiding by the accepted practice of electing the best among them, with the appropriate Qurayshi lineage and religious qualifications, then keeping their identities a secret for operational security. Once the Islamic State secured a territorial caliphate, it continued with this leadership practice, now with a self-proclaimed caliph. This process legitimated the election of Abu Umar as the first leader of the Islamic State as well as the transitions to Abu Bakr, Abu Ibrahim, and the current leader Abu al-Hassan al-Qurayshi. Today, no one knows the leader’s real identity, but the consistent emphasis on the importance of the position over personalities has been a key to the Islamic State’s resilience.

Beyond succession itself, leadership and organizational practices must be synchronized and routinized. This is why, for example, then-caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State’s media department organized an allegiance campaign after the collapse of the territorial caliphate with the goal of securing pledges of loyalty. The pledges were designed to publicly validate Abu Bakr’s position as leader despite the group’s territorial losses. This paid dividends when Abu Bakr was killed in 2019. Global affiliates pledged their loyalty to his new and anonymous successor — in an uncontested and rather anticlimactic process — and then reiterated them publicly as part of subsequent propaganda campaigns.

As we wait for al-Qaeda to announce a new leader, it is clear that the group has squandered its chance to develop and project an equally rigorous approach to leadership succession. It has failed to communicate a standard criterion for leaders of the group and will likely be left to simply select the best man available through a shura council vote. While the Islamic State presents its own leader as the ultimately religious authority, al-Qaeda remains haunted by having already elevated someone who is now dead.

After the collapse of the Islamic State’s caliphate, al-Qaeda remains a healthy competitor for the leadership of global jihad, with strong African franchises such as Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin in the Sahel and al-Shabaab in Somalia. But leadership succession remains an Achilles heel for the group and has previously had an erosive impact on its cohesion and resilience. The question now is whether its key rivals — from the Islamic State to counterterrorism officials around the world — will exploit these vulnerabilities.



Haroro J. Ingram is a senior research fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.  

Craig Whiteside is a professor of national security affairs for the U.S. Naval War College resident program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

Both authors wrote The ISIS Reader: Milestone Texts of the Islamic State Movement (Hurst Publishers) with Charlie Winter. Thanks to Nadeem Khan (@neas_khan) and Cole Bunzel (@colebunzel) for some critical inputs.

Image: Photo by Hamid MirCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons