Al Qaida’s Ayman al Zawahiri: Dead, duplicitous or oblivious?

WASHINGTON — Ayman al Zawahiri, leader of Al Qaida Central (AQC), was duped, is part of a conspiracy, or died long ago according to his fellow terrorists and intelligence experts and officials around the globe.

Those are the only reasons they can find to explain why he would swear allegiance to a dead man.

In an online newsletter called Al Nafir on July 20, 2014, Zawahiri said, “The first edition begins by renewing the pledge of allegiance to [the] Emir of the Believers Mullah Muhammad Omar Mujahid, may Allah preserve him.”

But Omar, the head of the Taliban and the man the late Osama bin Laden and AQC called their “Leader of the Faithful”, died in 2013, a year before Zawahiri’s pledge.

The Taliban, which kept it a secret, confirmed it a more than week ago and has chosen a new leader.

Richard Barrett, who tracked Zawahiri for a decade (2004-2013) as the Coordinator on the United Nations Al Qaida-Taliban Monitoring Team, told WTOP, “either Zawahiri was completely ignorant of what was going on with his so-called superior officer (Mullah Omar) or he was party to a long-standing deception. Either one would undermine his credibility in many of the other things he might have said.”

Since the announcement of Omar’s death, a cascade of consequential events have created enormous pressure on Zawahiri to show himself.

Barrett, now a Senior Vice President at the Soufan Group, a strategic security and intelligence firm based in New York, said other telling events have led to speculation that Zawahiri is dead.

“Beyond the absence of his comment about Mullah Omar, there’s the absence of a comment on the death of Nasir Al-Wuhaysi, the leader of Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP),” said Barrett.

Not only was Wuhaysi the head of AQAP, but according to Barrett, “he was the leader of the most important part of Al Qaida, and he was also Zawahiri’s general manager.”

“Wuhaysi’s death was a huge blow,” said Patrick Skinner, Director of Special Projects for The Soufan Group.

“He was basically the operational leader of AQC and he was killed and Zawhiri has said nothing. So they’ve lost their supreme leader and their number two; and the head of the group (Zawahiri), which is under tremendous pressure from ISIS, at least in terms of propaganda, has said nothing,” said Skinner.

Questions about Zawahiri’s status are also pouring out of the jihadist community onto social media. Most notable among them are those from Muhamed Mahmoud, an Islamic State ISIL commander. In a blistering series of tweets on July 30, 2014, after the death of Mullah Omar said, “here is the next bombshell: Az-Zawahiri has long been dead and Al Qaida is concealing this.”

Mahmoud, a former Al Qaida operative, offered no concrete proof of Zawahiri’s death, but anecdotally pointed out that Zawahiri, “loved the camera and published an audio or video (message) for every event.”  Zawahiri he said, “has not produced any kind of messaging in almost a year.”

In the last year, numerous key Al Qaida figures have been killed. They include:

  • Adnan El Shukrijumah, a top-tier, longtime operative, who once held a U.S. green card.
  • Longtime American spokesman Adam Gadahn, a Southern California man of Jewish descent.
  • Muhsin Al Fadhli, leader of the Khorasan group, and one of the few who had advanced knowledge of the 9/11 attacks. He died, too, without any acknowledgment from Zawahiri.

“In their (jihadist) circles, these guys were rock stars, legends and they lost many legends and he hasn’t said a word since September”, said Skinner.

If Zawahiri is still alive, said Skinner, a former case officer for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the growing speculation will force him to not just issue a statement, but, “he must do something.”

“Written statements don’t mean anything, because Mullah Omar gave two EID addresses from the grave.”

Omar, was believed to have released Eid al-Fitr addresses celebrating the end of Ramadan in 2014 and 2015, but as it turned out, he was already dead. Someone else wrote them and dispatched them in his name.

A key question is: was Zawahiri in the dark, part of the conspiracy to keep the legacy of the organization alive, or is he dead as well?

Skinner said Zawahiri might just be exercising caution and putting his own self-preservation over that of the organization. But he and Barrett both agree, if Zawahiri is alive, he’s embarrassed about his endorsement of a dead man. Barrett and Skinner say he’s likely aware the only way to rescue his reputation and to prevent Al Qaida’s fighters from defecting to ISIL is to launch a large scale attack on a western target.

U.S. and western intelligence officials said they have no concrete proof Zawahiri’s alive or dead, but they believe Al Qaida is still capable of striking western targets, including the U.S.



J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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