Al Qaeda needs a new leader after the assassination of Zawahiri. Its bank is thinner than before.

Although the terrorist group does not lack opponents, its ranks are fewer and more geographically dispersed than 10 or 20 years ago.

Here’s what we know about who could be the next leader of Al Qaeda.

The man many analysts see as Zawahiri’s successor is Saif al-Adel, a former Egyptian commando who is one of the last survivors of al Qaeda’s “founding generation” and has spent much of the past two decades in Iran.

Adel was a loyal servant of Osama bin Laden before acting as al Qaeda’s interim leader in 2011. He rigged the succession process in favor of Zawahiri because that’s what bin Laden wanted — even though Adel himself could be a more effective option as competition from ISIS grew in the following years.

Saif al-Adel is his nom de guerre, which translates as Sword of Justice. This is not the only mystery about the man.

There are only a couple of purported photos of him in existence. He allegedly committed his death at the age of 20. His status in Iran is also unclear: sometimes in prison, sometimes under house arrest, sometimes at liberty.

Ali Soufan, former FBI special agent and author of “Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State,” describes Adel as the ultimate insider, a well-connected man in many countries, and a clever military tactic . For most of his adult life he lived and breathed al Qaeda.

Soufan wrote in the Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinel journal recently that Adel played “a central role in outrageous attacks from the ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident in Somalia to the bombing of US embassies in East Africa and the suicide attack on the destroyer USS Cole.”

The pictures show the Kabul house where the al Qaeda leader is believed to have been killed by a US strike

“When he acts, he does it with ruthless efficiency,” Soufan added. “Above all, he was a pragmatist — a man who would have known that despite the hostility of living under a [Shia] cursing of the Sunni government [al Qaeda]his best chance of survival, and therefore continued effectiveness in jihad, lies in returning to Iran.”

Soufan also noted that al-Adel was an adviser to the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose organization became ISIS.

“Saif as emir will enjoy a rare opportunity to lure some former members of the Islamic State back [al Qaeda],” Soufan suggested.

Abdal-Rahman al-Maghrebi

African affiliates

A UN expert report earlier this year revealed that others running for al Qaeda’s leadership are from the organization’s established African affiliates.

It mentioned three possible candidates besides al-Adel: Abdal-Rahman al-Maghrebi; Yazid Mebrak, the leader of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); and Ahmed Diriye, the leader of Shabaab in Somalia.

Maghrebi will, as it were, keep it in the family, since he is Zawahiri’s son-in-law. But he is Moroccan in an organization historically dominated by Saudis and Egyptians.

A wanted poster for Abdal-Rahman al-Maghrebi.

He was named a specially designated international terrorist by the US State Department last year and was described as the “long-time director” of As Sahab, al Qaeda’s media operation. He is 52.

In papers discovered in bin Laden’s Pakistani hideout, another senior al Qaeda figure said Maghrebi “has high morals, he can keep secrets, and he is patient. His ideology is cautious, and he is well aware.”

Mebrak, an Algerian, became the leader of AQIM in 2020. He is also known as Abu Ubaydah Yusuf al-Anabi.

In designating him, the State Department said he was “expected to play a role in the global governance of al Qaeda,” just as his predecessor as AQIM leader had done.

He is a veteran of jihad in the Sahel, where al Qaeda and ISIS groups compete for supremacy.

A wanted poster for Yazid Mebrak.

Another affiliate that has survived despite the best efforts of the United States and a multinational force in east Africa is al Shabaab in Somalia. It was prone to internal rifts and its fortunes swung quickly but it survived a challenge from the nascent ISIS.

Diriye has been its leader since 2014, a tenure unlikely to be long-lived. Shabaab and al Qaeda have been united for a decade and Diriye quickly pledged allegiance to Zawahiri when he became leader.

For al Qaeda, appointing a leader from Africa is a cultural leap. Some former al Qaeda insiders say senior Egyptian and Saudi figures within the organization often look down on African affiliates.

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Al Qaeda has had only two leaders and the current status of its governing Shura (council), which played a key role in Zawahiri’s election, is difficult to determine. When Zawahiri was elected, he was already anointed by bin Laden as his successor but it still took some time to get the “bayat”– the oath of loyalty — of the distant members of the council. The working assumption among analysts is that members of the Shura may begin declaring bayat in the coming weeks on al Qaeda’s third leader.

But the field of possible contenders has narrowed over the years, especially with the death of bin Laden’s son Hamza and the assassination in Iran of another prominent al Qaeda figure, Mohammed al Masri.

The leadership of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, has also been disrupted by US and Saudi operations.

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Still, there may be opportunities for al Qaeda to reinvent itself — whether Adel becomes the next leader or al Qaeda turns to the next generation of battle-hardened African jihadis.

The UN panel of experts on international terrorism believes that “the international context is in favor of [al Qaeda]who seeks to be recognized again as the leader of the global jihad.”

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As ISIS has weakened in the Middle East (although it remains a deadly presence through its African affiliates and survives in parts of Syria and Iraq) “[al Qaeda] propaganda is now better developed to compete with ISIL [ISIS] as the main actor in inspiring the international threat,” the UN experts concluded.

Inside Afghanistan, al Qaeda’s dominant presence is in the south and east, although UN experts have noted that it may be seeking to establish a presence in the western provinces bordering Iran.

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Al Qaeda has no friends inside Afghanistan, beyond its long historical ties to the Haqqani Network, a powerful player within the Taliban regime. Its Central Asian affiliates such as the Turkestan Islamic Party also maintain a presence.

Whoever replaces Zawahiri, the group’s leadership will likely continue to have its center of gravity in Afghanistan as long as the Taliban rule the country, even though many of its operations will take place thousands of miles away.

The successor’s task will be to re-establish the group’s relevance while operating diverse franchises across Asia, Africa and the Middle East — and perhaps inspire a new generation to carry out attacks in its name in cities in the West.