The Question of Succession in Al-Qaeda
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Two months after a U.S. Hellfire missile posted a “Now Hiring” sign for al-Qaeda’s CEO position, experts continue to debate potential contenders while waiting for al-Qaeda to make an announcement. Some believe that the group’s silence on its new leader signals a crisis of succession. Others believe it suggests the end of an era for al-Qaeda as a key terrorist organization. While some counter-terror experts identified Saif al Adel and Abd al Rahman al Maghrebi as potential successors to al Zawahiri, a dark horse contender with long ties to Osama bin Laden could upend these predictions and threaten to revive one of history’s most lethal terrorist groups: Amin Muhammad Ul Haq Saam Khan.
While the former two contenders represent the usual suspects in terms of bureaucratic succession for al-Qaeda’s top seat, the reality is that both men are under house arrest in Iran. Al-Qaeda, meantime, is facing a crisis: It has been losing adherents for years. Those still with the organization may feel it needs a new leader who can regain global attention, and a potential alternate successor could take al-Qaeda a step forward.
In these virtual pages, Haroro Ingram and Craig Whiteside recently argued that, unlike the Islamic State, al-Qaeda missed an opportunity to establish a succession plan, hindering the group’s future potential in the complex political terrain. They see succession ambiguity as a flaw and a weakness. But even terrorist organizations adapt and learn. And while Ingram and Whiteside see al-Qaeda’s lack of synchronized leadership succession process as its Achilles heel, we should consider it intentional — perhaps even advantageous.
For starters, transition lulls are normal in the weeks following an al-Qaeda leader’s death. Even al Zawahiri’s command assumption was delayed nearly six weeks after bin Laden’s death in May 2011.
Al-Qaeda has been deliberate in its decisions and behaviors. It has endured more than 20 years of conflict, 11 of them since losing Osama bin Laden. In its efforts to survive, al-Qaeda expanded beyond the borders of Afghanistan. As it faces a new and challenging landscape, one of the ways al-Qaeda might survive and reassert itself as the dominant global jihadist movement is by adopting new potential leadership succession strategies that enable the organization to be back on the march, as Abu Bakr al Baghdadi did for the Islamic State. Hence, al-Qaeda’s leadership choice might not be the apparent contenders.
In analyzing the way ahead, we need to remember our history. Regarding leadership in the past, both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State had succession plans, but these plans were different. Al-Qaeda had a bureaucratic plan. The leader predesignated deputies, and deputies succeeded the leader based on a shura council meeting. In contrast, the Islamic State was flexible in choosing its next leader depending on what it was facing at each point in its history, as Ingram and Whiteside suggest. The Islamic State’s explosive proliferation under al Baghdadi and lightning-fast combat successes in Iraq revealed that picking the right leader may be more effective than hastily emplacing the next in line.
In his book, How Terror Evolves, Yannick Veilleux-Lepage argues that groups innovate and change strategies not in a vacuum but as a response to solving a problem linked to a desire for a competitive advantage against an adversary. The world has changed over the past 21 years. What makes us think that al-Qaeda did not?
Until 2003, al-Qaeda consisted mainly of Afghan insurgency veterans, with Arabs, especially Egyptians, filling most of its leadership roles. This al-Qaeda has ceased to exist. Facing intense counter-terrorism pressure pushed the organization to transform, creating a diffused movement with affiliates worldwide primarily focused on local goals, with al-Qaeda leadership increasingly distant from its affiliates’ ground campaigns. Starting in 2004, the group started allying with other organizations from different backgrounds. The first affiliate was al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers, more widely known as al-Qaeda in Iraq. The second and third affiliates were, respectively, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in 2007 and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in 2009. In 2014, al-Shabaab pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda even though it took a couple of months for al-Zawahiri to accept his pledge. (However, bin Laden’s diary noted that al-Shabaab had established affiliation prior but was instructed not to announce it publicly.)
Today, however, al-Qaeda faces a different landscape that could push it to change its ways.
With an unenthused Taliban, tensions with Iran, and an ascendant Islamic State in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda is now faced with pressures to evolve and regenerate. To gain international recognition as the government of Afghanistan, the Taliban outwardly agreed to cut ties with al-Qaeda. A U.N. report published in May 2021 stated that al-Qaeda had “minimized overt communication with the Taliban to lay low and not jeopardize [the] Taliban’s position.” To make things worse for the Taliban, the recent death of al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan was an added punch. To mitigate the situation, al-Qaeda recently published a statement affirming that it would “cease to attack America from Afghanistan.” Meanwhile, the Islamic State in Afghanistan is also challenging al-Qaeda’s position there.
From my reading of bin Laden’s diary notes (released by the CIA in 2017), assessment of congressional hearings, and fieldwork in the Middle East and North Africa, al-Qaeda’s decision-making evolves and adapts in the face of adversity. As such, al-Qaeda might not limit its options to Saif or al Maghrebi. Al-Qaeda’s leadership choice might reflect the group’s understanding of the pressures it currently faces — it could look to someone better equipped to meet this moment.
In their new book, Terror in Transition, Tricia Bacon and Elizabeth Grimm detail five types of successors: caretakers, signalers, fixers, visionaries, and figureheads. They characterize al Zawahiri as a caretaker who continued the mission and tactics established by bin Laden. However, unlike bin Laden, he was not a tactical or operational leader. He was a manager primarily providing strategic guidance. Al Zawahiri, for instance, instructed the affiliates not to conduct attacks abroad, diminishing al-Qaeda’s visibility operationally in international theaters. Still, in contrast with Ingram and Whiteside, I suspect al-Qaeda’s next leader is presently attending shura council meetings.
In addition, Ingram and Whiteside suggest that charismatic leaders are temporary, emerge during crises, and typically do not make effective strategists and managers. But al-Qaeda is already highly organized, so what Ingram and Whiteside present as a weakness of charismatic leaders may not apply now. Indeed, to survive, it may need another bin Laden — a charismatic visionary who will reinvigorate the operational arm of its enterprise.
Enter Amin Muhammad Ul Haq Saam Khan. A former senior al-Qaeda leader, Khan led bin Laden’s Black Guard and served as his personal security chief at Tora Bora in 2001. Khan fought Soviet forces during the 1980s in Afghanistan. He also helped bin Laden elude U.S. capture while fleeing Sudan for Afghanistan.
Khan is a medical doctor. He is also brutal and authoritative. A former facilitator between al-Qaeda and the Taliban, Khan, has curiously remained off-grid for the past 14 years. That is until recent reports cited his sudden surfacing last year in Nangarhar province as Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. Khan’s presence notably coincides with that of al Zawahiri in Afghanistan. Coincidence? Maybe.
Not to mention that Afghanistan has always been considered al-Qaeda’s “crown jewel.” Its leaders often manage from Afghanistan or Pakistan. Hence, Khan’s Afghan heritage is a bonus for al-Qaeda.
Khan started his career as a member of Hizb-i-Islami Khalis, who were influential in welcoming bin Laden to Afghanistan after al-Qaeda’s ejection from Sudan in 1996. Khan was one of 39 terrorists identified initially as affiliated with the 9/11 attacks. He endured U.N. sanctions for “financing, planning, facilitating, preparing or [the] perpetrating of acts or activities in support of Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda as well as supplying, selling or transferring arms and related material to support terror activities.”
Additionally, Khan is from Nangarhar province. While he would be the first non-Arab leader of al-Qaeda, we have observed this phenomenon in its affiliated African franchise Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin in the Sahel, which a Tuareg leads from Mali. To that end, under its global franchise model, al-Qaeda also no longer requires Arab leadership. It may instead want the most capable terrorist leader available.
As if his resume was lacking, Khan has personal ties within the region and is a veteran intermediary between Taliban and al-Qaeda leadership. According to a U.N. report, bin Laden’s son, Abdullah, held meetings with the Taliban in October 2021. Khan’s emergence in Afghanistan last year may be related or a sheer coincidence. Or it is equally possible that al Zawahiri had been preparing Khan for succession all along.
For the United States, al Zawahiri’s death at the Kabul guest house of Siraj Haqqani showed that, contrary to initial hopes or expectations, the Taliban and al-Qaeda have continued to cooperate. The Taliban continues to harbor and breed high levels of support for its relationship with al-Qaeda. It violated the Doha Agreement, and the United States lost critical ground intelligence in the aftermath of its withdrawal from Afghanistan. Some U.S. policymakers may believe that its withdrawal from Afghanistan signaled the end of the “Global War on Terror,” but a unified Taliban and al-Qaeda front could have more than a few axes to grind with the United States and its partners.
Although Khan may not be the apparent option for al-Qaeda’s top spot, he would be a potent surprise choice. He is a capable visionary. As a trusted companion of al-Qaeda’s top martyr (bin Laden), Khan could elicit loyalty while simultaneously keeping the Taliban happy. That could fuel Taliban aspirations beyond Afghanistan’s borders (e.g., Pakistan and India), reopening an ugly chapter — one the United States thought closed a year ago.
Sara Harmouch is a Ph.D. student at American University’s School of Public Affairs. She is also a Summer Associate and an adjunct researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Her interests are asymmetric warfare, political violence, violent extremism, armed non-state actors, all forms of terrorism, terrorist groups’ behaviors and alliances, counter-terrorism policies, threats to democracy, and security sector assistance. Follow her on Twitter: @sara_harmouch
Image: Wikimedia Commons