He is an old man and his videos are tedious, but with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi dead, he has become the undisputed leader of global jihad and the world’s most wanted terrorist.
An Egyptian with a white beard and oversized reading glasses, Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is now the only terrorist with a US$25-million reward on his head.
Although ISIS emerged from Al Qaeda, Zawahiri and Baghdadi were rivals, both competing for dominance of the global jihadist movement.
But Baghdadi’s death in Syria has left Zawahiri the last one standing.
Experts suspect Zawahiri will try to exploit Baghdadi’s demise to reassert his leadership, as well as Al Qaeda’s position as the torch-bearer of international jihadist violence.
“There was already a campaign along those lines going on after the end of ISIS’s territorial campaign,” said Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies.
“I expect Zawahiri to release a message, perhaps conciliatory, calling ISIS jihadis back to Al Qaeda,” said Joscelyn, also senior editor of The Long War Journal.
Perhaps for that reason, ISIS was quick to name a successor, asking fighters Thursday to pledge allegiance to Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi, about whom little is currently known except that he lacks the status of Zawahiri.
A member of a prominent Cairo family, Zawahiri was part of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad organization and travelled to Afghanistan in the 1980s.
As Osama bin Laden’s less charismatic sidekick, he was allegedly involved in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the 2000 attack on the USS Cole and the 9/11 atrocities.
He faces charges in the United States and yet he has somehow avoided death or capture, and continues to appear in Al Qaeda videos, dressed in white, looking somewhat eccentric at 68.
In his most recent video release, issued on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, he decried the U.S. and asked followers, “Where is your contribution in terms of jihad?”
“In my view, he has been the most careful and most strategic of all the jihadi leaders, which is why he is still around,” said Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.
After 9/11, Zawahiri fled Afghanistan for Pakistan’s border area and married into a local tribe, Hoffman said, embedding himself in a region that has proven nearly impossible for outsiders to penetrate.
He survived a 2016 CIA drone strike in Pakistan’s Shawal Valley, and most likely remains in the country. When he appears in videos, he is always indoors in front of a generic backdrop that provides no clues to his whereabouts.
While Baghdadi’s reign was relatively short-lived, Zawahiri has survived due to his importance, caution and patience, Hoffman said.
“Those three traits position him well to assert control of the global jihad movement, or at least to emerge as its leading light.”
Following the U.S. military operation that ended with Baghdadi’s death, President Donald Trump said he had made killing the ISIS leader a priority, but U.S. authorities have almost certainly been hunting Zawahiri as well.
“It’s just that his generally low-key approach and great care in ensuring his security has made him a more difficult target to locate,” said Hoffman, a leading Al Qaeda expert.
The rise of ISIS left Al Qaeda partly in the shadows, but Zawahiri still commands a loyal following, and has influence over regional armed factions from Africa to Southeast Asia.
“I think Zawahiri is widely underestimated,” said Joscelyn. “He’s one of the smarter jihadis. It’s true that his lectures are boring, but that’s because they often aren’t intended for the youth or for us.
“He’s trying to argue with real Islamic scholars who disagree with him, so he offers lengthy religious and historical justifications for his worldview, which of course most real scholars reject. But he’s no dummy.”