Ayman Zawahiri in 2017 onwards is irrelevant to the US effort to solve the Jihadist Terrorism problem


The Arabist blog has an excellent feature translation of an article by a Jordanian journalist analyzing the latest speech of the nominal leader of Al-Qaeda as part of the site’s partnership with the company Industry Arabic.

I am perhaps biased since I co-founded Industry Arabic but I truly believe they are the best Arabic-focused firm in the world. The quality of this translation is phenomenal.

The post raises the key question from a US Counter-terrorism perspective:

What is the ongoing importance of Ayman Zawahiri?

It depends upon the objective. I would suggest that we have to be more specific in how the question is phrased. Here is how Team Trump should be asking the question:

How do Zawahiri’s words in 2017 and onwards matter to stopping or at least limiting the overall terrorism/Jihadism problem?

Personally, it is hard for me to see how anything that Zawahiri does or say in 2017 onwards matters in the big picture for the US. The rise of Jihadism is a historical trend. The cat has been let out of the bag. If he had been killed in 2009 or 2013 or yesterday, nothing would be different in the Middle East today and in the future, in terms of the scope of the terrorism problem.

3 key points why:

#1 – Future Jihadism must/will be anarchic and decentralized. The age of 1990s era- hierarchal terrorist organizations is over. For one core reason: the capabilities of the modern  internet-era security state are enormous. By definition, the bigger and more hierarchal a group gets, the quicker it will eventually be compromised and taken apart.

For that reason, the ISIS model of decentralized Islamic insurgency is the present, and the future, not 1990s style Al-Qaeda. Let’s put it this way: can anyone imagine how the 9/11 plot could happen in 2017 US?  That 19 guys, half of them on expired Visas, could wonder around the country for 6 months or so…communicating with each other and not have been disrupted? Almost certainly not.

Jihadists aren’t dumb.  They know these capabilities too. And they will adapt along the lines of the harder-to-breakup model of ISIS.

#2 – Information in 2017 Internet/Google era has basically become a commodity, along with Zawahiri’s words.  In 1990, the pre-internet era, it was significant that a few guys like Zawahiri and Bin Laden were willing to get up and argue to people “hey you should go fight against your government.” Why? Because nobody else was saying this. It was novel at the time.

But as I wrote here – the basic justifications to launch a Jihad are very simple. Anybody who is predisposed to joining anti-establishment Jihadist has to do one Google search and they can find whatever they need to provide the intellectual framework to support their cause.

Therefore, it’s hard to see any empirical evidence that Jihadists around the Arab world are sitting around listening to Zawahiri’s words before they launch their actions. Or if their actions match what Zawahiri says, aren’t what they would be doing otherwise.

#3 – Zawahiri hasn’t been in the Middle East for 30 years and only survives because he is hiding deep deep in the absolute middle of nowhere somewhere in Pakistan or Afghanistan, to a degree that makes it not worth tracking him down by US forces. He has met at most 1% of the top leaders of Al-Qaeda or ISIS. Virtually everyone with whom he had a personal relationship with in the Jihadist movement is dead or in jail.  Influence in Jihadist movements, like everything, is about relationships.

If the Trump administration ever gets the chance to take out Zawahiri, great. But nothing in the 2017 and onwards Middle East, would be happening or will happen differently if Zawahiri was out of the picture.

At most, his words might provoke some debate amongst individual Jihadist intellectuals – which as I wrote here are highly overrated in terms of their influence on these movements.

At a strategic level, in terms of recruitment for Jihadist groups, or increasing or decreasing the appeal of Jihadism, Zawahiri’s words  have none.

If the AQ leader is killed tomorrow, nothing will change in terms of the scope of the Jihadist terrorism problem facing the US.  Far more important is a focus on the underlying issues leading to so many people joining these groups.  Here is an article I wrote in 2015 for The Arabist exploring that angle.


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4 thoughts on “Ayman Zawahiri in 2017 onwards is irrelevant to the US effort to solve the Jihadist Terrorism problem

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  4. Pingback: Analyzing (mostly) mediocre US anti-Jihadism messaging – p1

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