Bin Laden’s Former Right-Hand Man Has Resurfaced. Does It Matter?

September 15, 2021 Updated: September 22, 2021

News Analysis

A recently released video suggests that al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri may still be alive.

Some national security experts have downplayed that development due to Zawahiri’s apparent lack of charisma and leadership abilities; others have pointed out that al-Qaeda has flourished—even garnering U.S. support in some conflicts—over the past decade under Osama bin Laden’s former chief lieutenant.

Following bin Laden’s death in 2011, many celebrated the occasion as a win on two fronts: Not only did the United States bring bin Laden to justice, it also delivered al-Qaeda to the seemingly less effective Zawahiri.

A Rand Corporation analysis from Sept. 11, 2020, explains that line of thinking, positing that U.S. officials have made Zawahiri a low priority due to his ineptitude.

“The U.S. government has been relatively blasé about al-Qaeda since Zawahiri took over in 2011,” analysts Colin P. Clarke and Asfandyar Mir wrote for Rand in 2020. “Some terrorism analysts even claim a living Zawahiri has done more harm to al-Qaeda than a dead one ever could.”

Similar sentiments were expressed following the Sept. 11 release of a video featuring Zawahiri—a video that disproves reports from 2020 that the al-Qaeda chief was dead.

“I bet you a large sum of money that Zawahiri’s outdated recording has been watched and engaged by more Jihadism watchers than by jihadis and sympathizers,” said journalist Hassan I. Hassan, who inaccurately reported Zawahiri’s death in November 2020.

“Takeaways from al-Qaeda’s al-Sahab release today: … Zawahiri is still deadly boring,” Middle East Institute senior fellow Charles Lister wrote. “Beyond that, not much else of note—AQC remains peripheral to AQ globally.”

But despite Zawahiri’s seeming lack of charisma, others have argued that he has been an effective killer with the blood of thousands—including the victims of 9/11—on his hands. In their analysis for Rand in September 2020, Clarke and Mir also explained how the 70-year-old Egyptian helped al-Qaeda survive throughout the past decade, as the United States focused on other groups such as ISIS.

“Zawahiri, for example, is averse to state-building—a stance that shielded al-Qaeda and provided the group with relative respite as the Islamic State became a more immediate target of U.S. counterterrorism efforts,” they wrote. “As U.S. strikes against the Islamic State intensified, the cohesion of al-Qaeda’s affiliates and its allies improved.”

Not only has Zawahiri’s relatively low profile helped al-Qaeda evade destruction, but the United States has even lent help to so-called moderate Zawahiri loyalists in Syria and Yemen.

In Syria, the Obama administration funneled arms starting in 2012 to al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra in support of the failed attempt to oust the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad.

That support prompted then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to ponder during a 2012 interview with a CBS News reporter: “We know al-Qaeda—Zawahiri—is supporting the opposition in Syria. Are we supporting al-Qaeda in Syria?”

Epoch Times Photo
A Somali security soldier points his weapon at a poster bearing a photo of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri during an anti-al-Shabab rally in Mogadishu, Somalia, on Feb. 23, 2014. (Abdifitah Hashi Nor/AFP via Getty Images)

A 2015 article in Foreign Affairs—the publication of the Council on Foreign Relations—made the case for why the United States should back al-Qaeda.

“The instability in the Middle East following the Arab revolutions and the meteoric rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) require that Washington rethink its policy toward al-Qaeda, particularly its targeting of Zawahiri,” the Foreign Affairs article “Accepting al-Qaeda” reads. “Destabilizing al-Qaeda at this time may in fact work against U.S. efforts to defeat ISIS.”

However, AntiWar.com editorial director Scott Horton argues that support for Zawahiri loyalists is treasonous, and has contributed toward the continued instability in the region.

“Many of these same [Zawahiri loyalists] had helped the Sunni-based insurgency kill 4,000 out of the 4,500 U.S. troops who died in Iraq War II,” Horton wrote in his 2021 book “Enough Already: Time to End the War on Terrorism.”

Horton also dismissed the argument that al-Qaeda is preferable to ISIS.

“Tell that to the survivors of the thousands of American civilian and military victims murdered by these terrorists in the last 30 years,” he wrote.

Horton noted that U.S. support for al-Qaeda fighters continues to this day because the country is selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, which, in turn, is arming al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in the ongoing Yemeni civil war.

“In a very real sense, Presidents Obama and Trump [and now Biden] have again put the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, and special operations forces at war in the service of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri,” Horton wrote in “Enough Already.”

Officials are speculating where Zawahiri may be now.

George McMillan, a security contractor who worked on intelligence and surveillance issues in Afghanistan, told The Epoch Times that Zawahiri is likely hiding in western Pakistan—an assessment shared by many national security experts. McMillan explained that Pakistan’s intelligence agency, ISI, has long provided refuge to jihadists in an attempt to court them as allies against India.

“Zawahiri probably still plays a figurehead role in that,” McMillan said.

In recent weeks, Zawahiri may have slipped into Afghanistan in the wake of the United States’ withdrawal, according to former CIA Acting Director Michael Morrell.

“We think so, which means that the Taliban is harboring Zawahiri today,” Morrell said on Sept. 12 in response to a question on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

“The Taliban is harboring al-Qaeda today. And I think that’s a very important point.”

Horton said he thinks it’s disingenuous that U.S. officials are lamenting the Taliban’s tolerance of al-Qaeda veterans when they still support Zawahiri loyalists in Yemen.

“I don’t [want to] hear about ‘safe havens’ [in Afghanistan] from people who back al-Qaeda terrorists in Yemen and Syria,” Horton told The Epoch Times in a July interview.

The FBI has had Zawahiri on its most-wanted list since he was indicted for his alleged role in the Aug. 7, 1998, bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya—offering up to $25 million for information that leads to the terrorist leader’s apprehension.

The FBI declined to comment when contacted by The Epoch Times about Zawahiri’s apparent reemergence.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Ken Silva
Ken Silva
Ken Silva covers national security issues for The Epoch Times. His reporting background also includes cybersecurity, crime and offshore finance – including three years as a reporter in the British Virgin Islands and two years in the Cayman Islands. Contact him at ken.silva@epochtimes.us