Ayman al Zawahiri: Taliban's return fuels questions about al Qaeda leader's health and whereabouts

·4 min read

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — The whereabouts of Ayman al Zawahiri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden after U.S. special forces killed the al Qaeda leader in a 2011 raid in Pakistan, remain a mystery even as the terror group could be poised to rise again.

The shadowy Zawahiri, a 70-year-old native of Egypt, is believed to be hiding out in Afghanistan or Pakistan. But he may not even be alive.

The return of the Taliban to power two decades after their longtime al Qaeda allies carried out the 9/11 attacks could give the terrorist group a safe harbor once again. Ties between the Taliban and al Qaeda run deep.

Just five years ago, Zawahiri swore allegiance to the Taliban’s top spiritual leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, referring to him as the “emir of the believers.” Long before, bin Laden had pledged allegiance to the Taliban’s one-eyed founder, Mullah Mohammed Omar, who likely died sometime in 2013.

But whether Zawahiri will cement his group's alliance with the resurgent Taliban, or whether he is even alive, remains unknown after years in hiding with a $25 million U.S. bounty on his head.

Zawahiri's terror resume is decades in the making. He joined the Muslim Brotherhood as a teenager and founded the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a group that sought to overthrow the secular Egyptian government. Zawahiri was later arrested in a plot to assassinate Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. After his jihadist group merged with al Qaeda in the 1990s, he became bin Laden’s deputy.

Zawahiri’s tenure at al Qaeda is considered to be a mixed success: He has held the group together despite U.S. counterterrorism pressures, but the breakaway of the Islamic State from al Qaeda occurred in 2014 under his watch, with the rivalry continuing to this day.

A United Nations sanctions monitoring team said in July that Zawahiri’s status was “unknown” but that if he was alive, he was likely hiding in Afghanistan. It also determined that he was almost certainly in poor health, "leading to an acute leadership challenge for al Qaeda.” Video released by al Qaeda in March included undated clips of Zawahiri but not any direct evidence that he was alive.

The U.N. report said Zawahiri's potential successor, Sayf al Adl, was living in Iran.

Thomas Joscelyn, a senior editor for the Long War Journal, reported that al Qaeda recently released an 852-page book allegedly written by Zawahiri, with an introduction attributed to the terrorist leader dated April. The tome, written in Arabic, “deals with corruption among Islamic rulers,” Joscelyn wrote. Rita Katz, the executive director of the SITE Intelligence Group, said the book and its introduction provide no evidence of Zawahiri's current whereabouts or well-being.


The Taliban may owe Zawahiri and al Qaeda for the group's return to power. It was Zawahiri who established an al Qaeda wing in the Indian Subcontinent in 2014, where it claimed its operatives were fighting “shoulder-to-shoulder" with the Taliban "mujahideen" and called upon Muslims throughout the region to support the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”

A U.N. report from June concluded that “a significant part of the leadership of al Qaeda resides in the Afghanistan and Pakistan border region." The U.N. said that “large numbers of al Qaeda fighters and other foreign extremist elements aligned with the Taliban are located in various parts of Afghanistan” with “a number of senior figures killed, often alongside Taliban associates while co-located with them.”

The U.N. report found that the Taliban works with al Qaeda through the Haqqani network, a criminal network whose leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is also reportedly a member of al Qaeda. Ties between the two groups "remain close, based on ideological alignment, relationships forged through common struggle, and intermarriage,” according to the document.

The U.N. report assessed that al Qaeda has a footprint in at least 15 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces and that “members of the group have been relocated to more remote areas by the Taliban to avoid potential exposure and targeting.”

The report pointed to “assessments that have suggested a longer-term al Qaeda core strategy of strategic patience for a period of time before it would seek to plan attacks against international targets again.”


The FBI released a “Most Wanted Terrorist” poster for Zawahiri in the late 1990s. The United States believes Zawahiri was involved in the plotting of the subsequent twin al Qaeda bombings in August 1998 at U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, which killed 224 civilians and wounded more than 5,000 others, and he was included in the Justice Department’s 1998 indictment of bin Laden and others in the Southern District of New York. The U.S. also says Zawahiri helped coordinate the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000 in Yemen, which killed 17 American sailors.

In the wake of 9/11, the list of U.S. demands for the Taliban included handing over bin Laden and his top deputies such as Zawahiri — which didn’t happen.

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Tags: News, National Security, Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden, 9/11, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, Foreign Policy, Terrorism, United Nations, FBI

Original Author: Jerry Dunleavy

Original Location: Ayman al Zawahiri: Taliban's return fuels questions about al Qaeda leader's health and whereabouts