Can al Qaeda’s stealth strategy survive another decapitation attack? That’s what you call the strategy of seeking out and killing the supreme leader of an organization, especially an international Islamic terrorist group like al Qaeda. Founded in 1988 to foster the creation and growth of Islamic terror groups worldwide, the term “al Qaeda” means “the base”. Founder Osama bin Laden was the wealthy Saudi citizen whose billionaire father died in a plane crash in 1967 when Osama was ten years old. The elder bin Laden was not only fabulously wealthy, but was prolific in other ways. He had 22 wives (no more than four at a time) and 52 children. Osama inherited about $30 million and studied business, engineering, public administration and religion but left his university studies in 1979 to go join the fight against the Russian invaders of Afghanistan. Bin Laden discovered he was more useful as an organizer and fundraiser for Afghan men who were refugees in Pakistan but regularly went back to Afghanistan to fight the Russians. Bin Laden raised a lot of money and organized the delivery of weapons and distribution of them to Afghan fighters. Bin Laden demonstrated an exceptional organizational talent and, as the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988, bin Laden formed al Qaeda to continue his work of organizing Islamic terror groups and planning operations against non-Moslems, especially those in the west. Bin Laden was responsible for planning the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City and Washington. This made him a much more effective fund raiser and recruiter of Islamic terrorists. Bin Laden evaded detection for 10 years until 2011 when he was killed in his Pakistani hideout by American commandos. Bin Laden had obtained sanctuary in a residential compound in a Pakistani military city. After his death the Pakistani military insisted they had no knowledge of where bin Laden and his family were hiding. No one believed them and the same degree of sanctuary was not offered to bin Laden’s successor, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri Zawahiri. Despite that Zawahiri took over and continued operating from temporary hideouts on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghan border. When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan once more in 2021, they quietly offered sanctuary to Zawahiri, in an upscale neighborhood of Kabul. Zawahiri thought he was safe because every day he came out onto the balcony of his house and just looked out over the city. The Americans were watching him and when they confirmed his daily visits to the balcony, they sent him two laser guided missiles on August 1st. The Taliban government of Afghanistan denied any knowledge of Zawahiri entering or living in Kabul. The Taliban criticized the United States for firing missiles at targets in the city.
Bin Laden had organized over a dozen al Qaeda affiliates before his death. The American commandos carried away his body and all his files, which detailed how bin Laden and al Qaeda operated. Zawahiri carried on bin Laden's work and was responsible for going stealthy after ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) showed up in 2013. Zawahiri saw ISIL as an opportunity, not a threat. ISIL factions were always smaller than nearby al Qaeda groups and would attack everyone, including other Islamic terror groups who refused to be absorbed into ISIL. Zawahiri told al Qaeda affiliates to avoid getting into a war with local ISIL but to seek a truce so ISIL could go after more appropriate targets. ISIL was always the primary target for counterterrorism efforts, including airstrikes. That meant fewer attacks on al Qaeda which continued to establish new affiliate groups and expand existing ones. When an al Qaeda group got into trouble, as the one in Yemen did, Zawahiri would advise them and send money so that they could go quiet for a while and rebuild. Yemen’s ISIL group is down to a few dozen members and growing weaker.
It is unclear who will succeed Zawahiri, who had long been bin Laden’s designated successor. Zawahiri never revealed who, if anyone, was his designated successor. There may be one, for Zawahiri had several capable associates. He never met with them regularly, as that was part of his survival strategy. Not naming a successor kept that successor off the target list. Zawahiri did have a designated successor initially, but he was killed in 2015. Whoever Zawahiri’s successor is, he won't have over a decade of working personally with the al Qaeda leader. Zawahiri had strategic and organizational skills before he joined al Qaeda and bin Laden depended on Zawahiri to deal with operations. The capabilities, or lack of them in Zawahiri’s successor is decisive for al Qaeda growth. Without capable leadership al Qaeda ceases to be a successful affiliation and source of support. Current affiliates will weaken and there will be less Islamic terrorism.