Always ready for death: Leadership succession in al-Qaeda

In the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, it is of first importance to confront the reality that al-Qaeda is an insurgent organization, not a terrorist group. This is not a mere semantic difference.

  • Al-Qaeda remains a formidable foe, even after bin Laden’s death, because it is a large, veteran, well-organized, and resilient insurgent group that long ago institutionalized planning for leadership succession in all facets of its operations, military, financial, logistical, training, etc.
  • There is, in fact, no better proof that al-Qaeda is an insurgent organization — and that the West fools itself by terming it a “terrorist group” — than its ability to absorb the killing of so many senior leaders while still functioning effectively and expanding in numbers and geographical reach.
  • In terms of senior leaders killed, moreover, there is no Islamist terrorist group America has ever fought that could have endured and survived the punishment U.S. military and intelligence services have meted out to al-Qaeda since the late 1990s.

Bin Laden and al-Qaeda are both products of the Afghan jihad against the Soviets and their Afghan communist allies (1979-1992). This experience not only taught them that with faith, patience, and contiguous safe haven a superpower can be beaten, but that any group aspiring to fight and defeat a superpower must be prepared to suffer heavy and repeated loses not only of foot soldiers but also of leaders, including the most senior leaders of an organization.

  • Bin Laden built al-Qaeda on the pattern of the major Afghan Islamist insurgent groups that fought the Red Army; namely, those of Ahmad Shah Masood, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, and Yunis Khalis. These groups all suffered steady and significant leadership casualties at the hands of the Soviet military, which engaged in assassination operations on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border during their ten-year occupation of the former. The Soviets found it impossible to defeat the Afghan insurgent organizations by killing their leaders, a process Washington is now calling “cutting off the head of the snake.”
  • The Afghan Islamist groups, moreover, put a great deal of effort into succession planning not just because of Soviet targeted killings, but also because they suffered significant leadership loses from the internecine battles that raged between and among them; this was especially true for the groups of Masood and Gulbuddin. To date, this source of leadership losses is not one al-Qaeda has faced.
  • Bin Laden — and, incidentally, Mullah Omar — took this lesson to heart, and since the early 1990s built an organization that expends substantial amounts of time, thought, and training preparing for leadership succession at all its levels.

As noted, the attrition of al-Qaeda’s leadership ranks has been steady for much more than a dozen years. Renditions, targeted killings, and battlefield kills and captures have all taken a toll, and yet there is little indication that the U.S.-NATO coalition has anything more than a body count to show for its work. Killing or capturing al-Qaeda leaders one at a time provides no credible metric with which to measure the overall progress of the U.S.-NATO war effort.

For the core of al-Qaeda, successful preparation for leadership losses is most apparent in the position of the group’s overall military commander.

  • Al-Qaeda’s first military commander, Abu Ubaydah al-Panshiri, for example, died in Africa by drowning in May, 1996.
  • Abu Ubaydah was replaced by Muhammad Atef — also known as Abu Hafs al-Masri — who ran al-Qaeda’s military operations until he was killed in Kandahar in November, 2001.
  • Muhammad Atef was immediately succeeded by the former-Egyptian Special Forces officer, Sayf al-Adl.
  • Sayf al-Adl remained commander until he was caught while traveling in Iran and held under house arrest for several years by Iranian authorities.
  • Al-Adl was replaced by Abu Faraj al-Libi, who was captured in Pakistan in May, 2005.
  • Al-Qaeda’s overall military commander since Abu Faraj’s death has been difficult to determine from open sources, but much attention has been focused on the U.S.-citizen Muslim, Adnan Shukrajuma.
  • Most recently, Sayf al-Adl is reported to have been released by Iran and has returned to al-Qaeda. Media reports claim al-Adl has been named interim leader for bin Laden. After bin Laden’s permanent successor is selected by al-Qaeda’s Shura Council, al-Adl may resume his former post as al-Qaeda’s overall military commander, and Shukrajuma may return to leading operations aimed at the continental United States, a post he is reported to have held before the death of Abu Faraj.

The foregoing rough — and perhaps incomplete — chronology represents a significant level of attrition among al-Qaeda’s senior leaders, and yet, through it all, U.S. and British civilian and military intelligence estimates have continued to conclude that al-Qaeda remains a potent threat to the United States and its major allies at home and abroad.

It also must be noted that core al-Qaeda’s ability to fill significant and recurring leadership losses is also a characteristic shared by its branches outside South Asia.

  • In Yemen, for example, al-Qaeda’s senior and talented chief, Abu Ali al-Harethi, was killed by a drone strike early in the war. Al-Qaeda in Yemen had difficulty in immediately finding a qualified replacement and lost several of al-Harethi’s successors until Abu Wahayashi escaped from a Yemeni prison and took over the post. Wahayashi — bin Laden’s former private secretary — now commands al-Qaeda-in-the-Arabian Peninsula [AQAP] and must be viewed as a candidate to succeed bin Laden. AQAP also appears to be al-Qaeda’s preferred venue for exhibiting and developing the talents of U.S.-citizen Muslim volunteers who join the group, including Samir Khan and Anwar al-Awlaki.
  • In Saudi Arabia, the al-Qaeda organization lost at least a half dozen leaders since its first leader, Abd-al-Aziz al-Muqrin, was killed in the middle of 2003. This severe attrition in large part led to combining the Saudi and Yemeni branches of al-Qaeda and basing the overall command of al-Qaeda operations on the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen.
  • In Iraq, al-Qaeda-in-Iraq [AQI] lost its commander, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in 2006 and then lost his replacement and its Iraq military commander — Abu Umar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Muhajir, respectively — on the same day in 2010. The now resurgent AQI organization currently is led by Abu Bakr Husseini al-Baghdadi.
  • Al-Qaeda-in-the-Islamic-Mahgreb [AQIM], al-Qaeda’s allied group in Somalia [al-Shabbab], and al-Qaeda’s branches in Lebanon and Palestine have likewise replaced killed senior leaders while continuing to conduct organizational expansion, media activities, and military operations.
  • Beyond the leaders of these branches, al-Qaeda also has replaced such senior figures as Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, Tawfiq bin Atash, Abu Zubaydah, Abd al-Rahim al-Nasiri, Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, Abu Layth al-Libi, Abu Mustafa Abu-al-Yazid, and dozen or more senior leaders who were captured before 9/11.

While planning for succession always has been a priority for al-Qaeda, the process was intensified after 9/11 both because of the group’s losses and bin Laden’s concern for al-Qaeda’s survivability in the event of his death, whatever its cause.

  • Since he began speaking publicly in 1996, bin Laden said that he did not expect to live to see the end of the war he had declared against the United States. His wish, he said, was to die a martyr; he hoped that, if God granted him such a death, his blood would inspire young Muslims to join the jihad, which he clearly expected to be a multi-generational struggle.
  • Reflecting this fatalism, bin Laden and his lieutenants after 9/11 began to disperse the organization in an effort to ensure that it could not be decapitated by the kind of operation that finally killed bin Laden. In this effort, they were overwhelmingly successful.
  • At 9/11, for example, the majority of al-Qaeda’s manpower, training facilities, and planning operations were concentrated in Afghanistan, and much of that infrastructure was wrecked by the U.S.-NATO coalition by the middle of 2002.
  • But even given this disaster, bin Laden presided over a dispersal process that today sees al-Qaeda with some presence in Afghanistan, and strong branches in Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, the Levant, Palestine, Iraq, and across North Africa. Objectively, al-Qaeda today possesses a larger organization than it had at 9/11, as well as a far broader geographic base.
  • In addition, bin Laden in the last five years of his life devoted time and resources to building al-Qaeda’s influence and operational capabilities in the English-speaking world. Through the rhetorical, operational, and media skills of U.S.-citizen Muslims like Azzam al-Amriki [Adam Gadahn], Adnan Shukrajuma, Samir Khan [Inspire Magazine], Omar Hammami [Somalia], and Anwar al-Awalki, al-Qaeda has inspired U.S.-citizen Muslims to undertake violent activities inside the United States, men such as Major Nidal Hassan [Fort Hood], Najibullah Zazi [NYC subways], and Faisal Shahzad [Times Square].
  • That bin Laden consciously sought to prepare al-Qaeda and the Islamic world for his demise can also be seen in his relative quiet over the past five years, a quiet that was filled by repeated media presentations showcasing men from al-Qaeda’s next generation of leaders — men such as Abu Yaha al-Libi, Anwar al-Awalki, Abu Wahayashi, and Azzam al-Amriki. This process was aimed at acquainting Muslims with al-Qaeda’s future leaders.
  • Overall, the success of al-Qaeda’s dispersal efforts has not only made the organization nearly impossible to decapitate, it has given it multiple operational platforms it did not possess in 2001. The activities of these branches, moreover, give many more men the opportunity to train, gain combat experience, and develop as leaders than did the al-Qaeda organization that existed on or before 9/11. The branches — which today are seldom the venue of U.S. drone or Special Forces attacks — likewise ensure that a pool of quality leadership candidates is largely safe and readily available for al-Qaeda’s senior leaders to designate as successors-in-waiting for those leaders who surely will be lost in combat or via capture.

In conclusion, it is fair to say that al-Qaeda has long been well prepared to handle the unexpected death of leaders, even of bin Laden himself.

  • After nearly 16 years of trying, as the last three U.S. presidents have said, to bring al-Qaeda’s leaders “to justice one at a time,” the West finds itself faced with a most welcome body count of dead al-Qaeda leaders, but with no credible measure of progress against the group as a whole, much less the movement it inspires and instigates.
  • While the West must clearly continue to kill and capture as many al-Qaeda leaders in as many places as possible, this alone will not stop the steady growth in al-Qaeda’s size and thus in its ability to replace leaders. Likewise, the martyrdom of bin Laden and other senior leaders is likely to inspire numbers of young men to join the cause.
  • Until the West’s political leadership accepts the clear reality that young Muslims are inspired to join al-Qaeda and its Islamist allies not only because of the words and deeds of the groups and their leaders, but because of what Western governments do in the Muslim world, U.S. military and intelligence services will find that their efforts to kill or capture al-Qaeda leaders and other Islamist chiefs will do little to slow the growth of the international militant Islamist movement in the coming generation, and with it the threat to U.S. interests at home and abroad.

Author: Michael F. Scheuer

Michael F. Scheuer worked at the CIA as an intelligence officer for 22 years. He was the first chief of its Osama bin Laden unit, and helped create its rendition program, which he ran for 40 months. He is an American blogger, historian, foreign policy critic, and political analyst.