CEP Analysis: Al-Qaeda’s Next Leader

(New York, N.Y.) — The death of Ayman al-Zawahiri this week has left a temporary void in the leadership of al-Qaeda, but contenders are emerging as likely successors according to Counter Extremism Project (CEP) Senior Director and former Coordinator of the United Nations Security Council’s ISIL (Da’esh), al-Qaeda and Taliban Sanctions Monitoring Team Dr. Hans-Jakob Schindler:

“Since its founding in 1988, al-Qaeda has only known two leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Their deaths at the hands of U.S. forces, however, do not signal the end of al-Qaeda. The terror network has proved that the leadership vacuum is temporary, and a successor will soon be named.

“The most obvious and likely contender is Saif al-Adel, a senior leader and Zawahiri’s second-in-command. He has reportedly lived in Iran since 2015 and could easily move to neighboring Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda’s global leadership is presently hosted. In fact, some reports suggest that he has already crossed into Afghanistan, but there is no evidence to confirm this.

“Other potential contenders include Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM) leader Iyad Ag Ghaly and Abu Abd al-Karim al-Masri, a senior leader of Hurras al-Din (HaD), an al-Qaeda affiliated group in Syria. Neither is as obvious a choice to lead al-Qaeda as Adel, however.”

Ghaly is an ethnic Tuareg from northern Mali and would be the first non-Arab leader of al-Qaeda. However, as the emir of JNIM, Ghaly has transformed the Sahel into one of the most dangerous regions in the world. He is aligned with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has carried his statements on social media, and been featured in al-Qaeda’s weekly al-Massar publication. Today, he is widely believed to be part of al-Qaeda’s senior leadership.

Al-Masri has been active in al-Qaeda for many years. He is a member of the shura council for al-Qaeda’s general command, led a reconciliation committee to bridge disagreements between the al-Qaeda linked Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and burgeoning al-Qaeda splinter groups, and has served as a senior HaD leader since its founding in 2018. HaD is largely based in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib but is dwarfed by HTS. As a result, HaD—and by extension al-Masri—are seen as less consequential.

To read CEP’s Saif al-Adel resource, please click here.

To read CEP’s Iyad Ag Ghaly resource, please click here.

To read CEP’s Abu Abd al-Karim al-Masri resource, please click here.

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