Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is dealing with a depleted organisation that may not be able to conduct additional attacks.
By Rajeh Said
During the past five months, al-Qaeda has lost several prominent leaders, including its founder Osama bin Laden who was killed in May. The elimination of those leaders is depriving bin Laden’s successor, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, of a core group who had acquired experience in combat operations and al-Qaeda’s secret activities.
The elimination of veteran leaders does not mean al-Qaeda no longer poses a threat. However, al-Zawahiri is in an unenviable position because he now leads an organisation depleted of his contemporaries of veteran founding members. Those members are now either dead, in prison, or have turned against the organisation and joined the ranks of the jihadists who have issued reviews renouncing bloodshed and extremism in the interpretation of jihad.
Al-Qaeda’s younger generation consists of young members who lack experienced in the arts of combat and guerilla warfare. This observation can be deduced from the failure of al-Qaeda’s General Command in the Afghan – Pakistan border area to carry out any major operation in recent years. In contrast, al-Qaeda affiliates, notably the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula attempted to carry out attacks worldwide. Their plans included targeting passenger planes such as the attempted bombing of an American passenger jet travelling from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.
Al-Qaeda did not carry out attacks on the 10th anniversary of September 11th, 2001 attacks despite concerns it was planning bombings in the United States, specifically in New York and Washington. It is not clear whether that was the result of security measures that were implemented to prevent them or if it were a false alarm and there were no planned attacks.
Whatever the reason was, al-Qaeda’s failure to carry out more attacks is linked to the continuous pressure being applied on its hideouts in Pakistan’s tribal areas which has stripped it of dozens of its senior leaders and left it in a state that, should it continue, threatens to turn al-Qaeda into a marginal group with no influence on events in the world.
Abu Hafs al-Shahri was trusted by bin Laden
Al-Qaeda suffered its most recent loss on September 11th when the Saudi national Abu Hafs al-Shahri was killed in a drone strike in the Pakistani region of Waziristan, according to reports published in international media, including the New York Times and Washington Post.
Saudi media outlets also confirmed the news. Al-Hayat reported that al-Shahri, whose full name is Osama Hamoud al-Shahri, was a member of bin Laden’s “personal security detail”. He was ranked 11th on a list of the 85 most wanted individuals issued by Saudi officials for suspicion of involvement in terrorism. His name also appears on a second most-wanted list in Saudi Arabia known as the “list of 36”.
Al-Hayat reported that al-Shahri’s mother received a telephone call from a relative of her son’s wife to inform her that her son died in an air strike and that “they were able to bury him there.” It is believed he was killed in Mir Ali in North Waziristan, the site of the only pilot-less drone strike recorded there in recent days, according to a Reuters report. Al-Hayat reported that his family held funeral services for him in Riyadh.
Al-Shahri was significant not just because he was trusted by bin Laden and served as his body guard, but because he was a member of the organisation’s young generation who joined before the September 11th, 2001 attacks and gained experience that probably qualified him for senior positions in al-Qaeda. He reportedly held a leadership position in al-Qaeda as a co-ordinator between the organisation’s central leadership in Pakistan and the Pakistani Taliban.
His death comes days after al-Qaeda lost another leader, Younis al-Mauritani, who last year was tied to plots the organisation was allegedly planning in European countries. Al-Mauritani was reportedly arrested in a joint Pakistani-American operation in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Al-Shahri’s death occurred nearly a month after the killing of another leader, Atiyah Abdul Rahman, a Libyan, who was believed to be al-Qaeda’s deputy leader, second in command only to al-Zawahiri. A few months ago, Pakistani leader Ilyas Kashmiri, who was suspected of working closely with al-Qaeda, was also killed.
All the losses in al-Qaeda’s ranks will force al-Zawahiri, to make a difficult position. He does not want to appear incapable of carrying out attacks to avenge bin Laden’s death or be seen as having failed to act on the anniversary of the September 11th attacks, but he knows that al-Qaeda is facing significant pressure that is reducing its capabilities and eliminating its leaders before they are able to carry out new attacks and before they have an opportunity to train their successors.
In light of its depleted ranks, al-Qaeda faces the prospect of becoming a marginal organisation that no one listens to or has any interest in joining.