Brookings’ Bruce Reidel notes that it’s been a while since anybody heard from Ayman al-Zawahiri:
Zawahri designated Yemeni Nasir al-Wuhayshi—leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula—to be his successor in 2013. Then this June, al-Wuhayshi died in a drone attack in Yemen. Zawahri did not give a eulogy for his deputy.
Then, the Afghan Taliban belatedly announced its leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, the self-appointed ‘Commander of the Faithful,’ had died. The Taliban’s office in Qatar put the date of his death at April 23, 2013, but provided no reason for why it had not been announced publicly for over two years. The Afghan government said he died in a hospital in Karachi, Pakistan. The Taliban said Omar had not left Afghanistan in the past 14 years—”not even for a day to go to Pakistan or any other country.”
But not a word from Zawahri. A blank slate. No statement for his deputy’s death or his titular leader. His organization is still active in Pakistan. Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent, the group Zawahri lauded last September in the last message he made, is actively plotting attacks. Pakistani security officials recently killed one of its commanders in Baluchistan. Other senior al-Qaida operatives have also been killed in Pakistan recently.
Zawahiri’s silence on Omar’s death is particularly jarring, given the outpouring of jihadi eulogizing that accompanied the announcement, from the Taliban, from several Al-Qaeda franchises, and from Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba. As Reidel notes, Zawahiri even publicly renewed Al-Qaeda’s pledge of loyalty to Omar last year, when Omar may already have been dead. Might he have just been participating in a cover-up, or is it possible that Al-Qaeda’s leader is so irrelevant at this point that nobody bothered to tell him that Omar was really dead?
For all we know, Zawahiri himself could be dead, or close to it, or he could be in Pakistani custody, or he could just be hiding. Reidel thinks the anniversary of 9/11 will be revealing, because even if Zawahiri is in deep hiding he probably won’t be able to resist delivering some kind of message on that day, assuming he’s able to do so. But it’s worth pointing out that if Zawahiri has been “missing” all this time, nobody seems to have actually missed him very much. That’s likely a function both of some forced isolation and Zawahiri’s own inability to inspire a lot of zeal among his troops. Being the head of Al-Qaeda ain’t the prestige gig it used to be, I guess.
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