Ayman al-Zawahiri, the 70-year-old global leader of al-Qaeda, chose the moment to roll out an 852-page historical tome about failed governance in the Muslim world. One critic immediately labeled it “comically boring.”
An online excerpt released this month referred to the book as “Part I”— suggesting Zawahiri has even more to write. He takes shots at rivals and includes an apology of sorts for his long absences, which had fueled speculation that the al-Qaeda leader was seriously ill or even dead. Zawahiri thanked his followers for their “patience over long periods . . . it took me to write this book,” according to a translation provided by the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist organizations’ online activity.
On the Taliban’s triumph, Zawahiri said nothing at all.
The strikingly low-key pronouncement stands in contrast with the alarms sounded by Western officials and terrorism experts in recent weeks about an al-Qaeda resurgence in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Since Kabul’s fall, Islamist militant groups around the world have hailed the victory, and intelligence agencies see indications that some al-Qaeda members are already returning to the country.
Yet it also has become increasingly clear that the group built by Osama bin Laden is no longer the force it once was. And, according to some analysts who have tracked al-Qaeda for years, the prospects for a return to global prominence as an Afghanistan-based terrorist movement are far from guaranteed.
Long disappearances while writing books have left Zawahiri’s severely depleted organization without a visible, hands-on leader, according to Hassan and other experts. And to the extent Zawahiri remains in charge, analysts say, he appears to have little practical sway over his scattered network of al-Qaeda fighters or the regional franchises that bear the group’s name.
While threats of violence against the “far enemy”— the United States and the greater West — are still standard rhetoric on pro-al-Qaeda websites, as a practical matter many Islamist groups appear to have moved on. In both messaging and tactics, the focus has largely shifted to local struggles and issues — the “jihad of the people,” as some Islamist writers have termed it — with waning emphasis on the kind of elaborate anti-Western plots that will almost certainly invite an immediate and painful response and undermine efforts to establish local Islamic rule, terrorism experts say.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan, a former militant safe haven which famously refused to turn over bin Laden after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has lost some of its luster as a destination for itinerant militants with ambitions to pick fights with the world’s most powerful militaries.
“You don’t see foreign fighters flowing into Afghanistan like you did in the 1990s because there are other places, like Syria and Iraq, where you can go to gain prominence and fame,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA counterterrorism expert and adviser to four U.S. presidents. “And the Taliban certainly has thought long and hard about whether they want to be seen as the headquarters of international terrorism. Having spent 20 years trying to get back in control — successfully now — do they really want to jeopardize that again?”
The Biden administration says it plans to use “over the horizon” tactics — essentially electronic or “signals” intelligence and the use of armed drones — to identify and destroy any threats that emerge. But current and former U.S. officials acknowledge that the task of uncovering and disrupting plots and monitoring Afghanistan’s multiple terrorist groups, including a branch of the Islamic State, became far more challenging from the moment the last U.S. troops flew out of Kabul on Aug. 30.
“For counterterrorism strikes, you need assets in theater: good ‘signals’ intelligence, but also human intelligence networks operating on the ground — spies who are prepared to tell us secrets that put their own lives at risk,” said Nathan Sales, the State Department’s top counterterrorism official during the Trump administration. “With ‘over the horizon,’ you really have neither.”
A serious terrorist threat against the U.S. homeland could emerge quickly, experts acknowledge, from Afghanistan or from any of a dozen other countries where al-Qaeda or the Islamic State control territory or have a significant presence. Or it could arise from self-radicalized “lone-wolf” terrorists who carry attacks without waiting for official instructions or approval. Whether Afghanistan is a more likely source of such an attack, experts say, depends partly on whether Zawahiri’s presumptive Taliban hosts are willing to risk actions by al-Qaeda that would draw the United States back in.
“I don’t think anyone, inside or outside of government, has a good feel for the size of al-Qaeda’s leadership and what they want to do with their lives,” said Richard A. Clarke, the counterterrorism coordinator for the White House National Security Council on 9/11. “But if al-Qaeda is rational — that’s a big if — and if they want a second life, they might want to try a strategy that doesn’t involve pulling on Superman’s cape. That didn’t go so well for them last time.”
The book’s release does offer fresh clues to an abiding mystery over Zawahiri’s welfare. Until now, many experts, including some intelligence analysts, believed that the al-Qaeda leader was dead. But the author’s introduction to Zawahiri’s book — weightily titled “The Book and the Sultan: Agreement and Separation — Reflections on Political Corruption and its Effects on the History of Muslims” — is dated April 2021. In an undated video released on pro-al-Qaeda websites around the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Zawahiri refers to news events that occurred in early 2021. Yet he makes no mention of the Taliban’s rout of Afghan government forces over the summer. His striking silence quickly renewed speculation that he suffers from chronic illness or has difficulty quickly transmitting messages from his hiding place to the outside world.
Zawahiri uses the book’s introduction to bash unnamed Islamist militant leaders and scholars, accusing rivals of “demagoguery” and a “stream of bad morals.” Elsewhere in the published excerpts, Zawahiri’s commentary is delivered in his notoriously dry, pedantic style. Never a flashy leader, Zawahiri failed over the years to inspire his extremist followers in the same manner as bin Laden or more recent leaders such as the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, founder of the Iraqi group that later became the Islamic State. The man once seen as most likely to replace Zawahiri as al-Qaeda figurehead — Hamza bin Laden, son of the al-Qaeda founder — was killed in a U.S. counterterrorism operation.
“Zawahiri is the ideologue of al-Qaeda, a man of thought rather than a man of action, and his writings are ponderous and sometimes unbelievably boring,” said Riedel, the former CIA official. “He is not the charismatic figure that al-Qaeda needs, and I don’t see anyone else on the horizon who would be. Getting rid of bin Laden’s kid eliminated that possibility.”
For a time after Osama bin Laden’s death in 2011, Islamist militant groups around the world paid lip service to Zawahiri as the movement’s symbolic leader, but his authority came under serious challenge with the Arab Spring uprisings that started that same year. The upstart Islamic State openly defied al-Qaeda in 2013, and then declared war on it. Other militant factions in Syria, Yemen and Africa became increasingly preoccupied with civil wars and insurgencies, receiving no meaningful assistance or direction from al-Qaeda’s central leadership.
Hassan, the author and terrorism expert, cited the splintering and decentralization of the global Islamist militant movement as the key factor in al-Qaeda’s growing irrelevance. Writing in an online essay, he said “few today doubt that al-Qaeda is moribund,” with little chance of regaining its past glory.
“It is not a question of whether al-Qaeda can field a more charismatic or functional leader than al-Zawahiri; instead, the idea itself no longer has the same utility it once had within the extremist circles,” Hassan wrote. “Unlike in the past, the jihadist leadership is contested, the movement itself is fragmented, and the vanguard ideas . . . no longer resonate” — chiefly, the notion that inflicting pain on Western powers would force Americans and others to pull out of the Muslim world altogether and allow the Islamists free rein.
But Hassan and other experts also predict that Zawahiri and his deputies will attempt to prove their continued relevance, despite the group’s battered reputation and weakened state. They will likely take advantage of shifting fortunes in Afghanistan to try to regroup and replenish their diminished ranks, protected by some of the same Taliban officials who served as bin Laden’s hosts.
“The landscape has changed,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a 26-year intelligence veteran and counterterrorism expert, “but you can’t escape the fact that the Taliban is a medieval death cult that’s been allied with al-Qaeda.”