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Was Ayman al-Zawahiri Really a Success Story?


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M. Nureddin

August 5, 2022

At Akhbar al Aan, a news outlet with a keen interest in covering the developments in the Salafi-jihadi world, every year around the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks we strive to tell compelling stories about where Al Qaeda (AQ) stands and where it may go next. Our audience includes young men on the cusp of deciding what to do with their lives. We know some of them may have lost hope of finding a fulfilling life and might be attracted to the call of extremist organizations like AQ. That’s why we care about informing our audience with reliable facts and insightful analyses of the reality of violent extremism. 

In April, when we reviewed the potential of various story possibilities on AQ, Ayman al-Zawahiri did not even make it to our shortlist of top AQ personalities to storify. Our team and the extremism experts who regularly contribute to our output have agreed that the most compelling stories could be about the AQ senior leaders living under controlled circumstances in Iran. They were operationally active, their relationship with Iran had big question marks, and, significantly, we found that AQ supporters on social media appeared to be uninformed about them. 

Our decision not to invest in Zawahiri stories was based on several factors, including his increasing detachment from the realities on the ground. We kept analyzing his numerous speeches only to wonder why he was not addressing the key issues that mattered to AQ members and affiliates. After the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in August 2021, Zawahiri’s messages seemed to lack any substance of practical importance. 

Even Zawahiri-related issues were best addressed to others. Thus, we pressed Taliban representatives on the subject of Zawahiri’s bay‘a (oath of allegiance) to the Taliban leader. Spokesman Suhail Shaheen answered us with a clear “There is no bay‘a,” seemingly clinching Zawahiri’s growing irrelevance. All of Zawahiri’s efforts to portray the Taliban emir as his supreme leader were thus publicly undermined.

We closely monitored Zawahiri’s productions, but focusing on the AQ Tehran group’s story was much more rewarding. Unlike Zawahiri’s largely void lectures, we found compelling insights in the writings of Mustafa Hamid, the ideological ally and father-in-law of Saif al-Adl, the heir apparent to Zawahiri. We found clues that led us to argue that the AQ remnants in Iran must be suffering from “Tehran Syndrome,” the title of our upcoming documentary series. 

Was Zawahiri aware of how the senior leaders in Tehran were diverging from the operations and the ideology of Zawahiri’s AQ? 


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