On Sunday, an American drone ended the life of Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has led al-Qaeda since Osama bin Laden’s death in 2011. Matthew Levitt and Aaron Zelin comment on the jihadist mastermind’s career, and the significance of his demise:
Zawahiri’s death portends a new era for al-Qaeda, one less certain in its senior leadership. Unlike his predecessor, he was not known for inspirational rhetoric or media savvy, showing a preference for long, boring treatises and videotaped sermons that led many to see him as a less formidable terrorist leader than bin Laden. Yet Zawahiri undeniably provided much of the intellectual foundation for al-Qaeda’s international agenda of committing mass-casualty terrorist attacks and promoting jihadist governance. Today, some of the organization’s branches, especially in Somalia and Mali, are in strong positions to continue this mission.
In addition to a penchant for indiscriminate attacks that killed civilians, his main contribution was the strategic mindset of targeting the “far enemy” in order to facilitate the overthrow of the “near enemy.” That is, by attacking the United States and other actors who supported what he perceived to be pro-Western, insufficiently Islamic regimes in the Arab and Muslim worlds, the movement could eventually unseat those “apostate” regimes.
As for Zawahiri’s leadership legacy, one cannot escape the fact that al-Qaeda has been steadily devolving from the unipolar leader of the global jihadist movement since he took over. Despite the major threat posed by certain affiliates abroad, al-Qaeda . . . is now weaker on the world stage.