CAIRO: Al-Qaeda chief and Egyptian national Ayman Al-Zawahiri has died in Afghanistan from natural causes, Arab media reported on Friday.
The news reports came a few days after social media carried speculation that the Al-Qaeda chief had passed away. Zawahiri was last seen in a video message that was released by the militant group on the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the US.
Arab News stated in its report that it spoke to at least four security sources in Pakistan and Afghanistan — who spoke on condition of anonymity — out of which two confirmed Zawahiri’s death.
An Al-Qaeda translator said Zawahiri had died last week in Ghazni. “He died of asthma because he had no formal treatment.”
A Pakistani official has been cited by Arab News as saying that he believed Zawahiri had died, most probably by natural causes. Another source close to the Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan said Zawahiri had died this month and that a few followers had offered his funeral prayers.
He did not elaborate as to whether the funeral prayers were offered in absentia or as his body was buried in the grave. “What we know is that he was having some breathing issues and has passed away somewhere in Afghanistan,” said the source.
“We have received the same information that Zawahiri died about a month ago,” a Pakistani source, privy to anti-terror operations in Afghanistan, reportedly told Arab News.
However, Arab News said it spoke to another Pakistani official who said that Zawahiri was in Afghanistan and had been “extremely ill” but said he was not aware whether the Al-Qaeda leader was dead or not.
To my knowledge he was extremely ill and had the issue of kidney failure,” the intelligence official said. “He was unable to manage his dialysis but I still need to confirm if he has died.”
The US has said that it has received news of Zawahiri’s death but had not verified it yet.
The reports have come as questions grow over Al-Qaeda’s future intentions, with the network radically different from the franchise that spread fear around the world under the leadership of the charismatic Bin Laden.
The killing of Bin Laden in a US operation in Pakistan in 2011 left the group in the hands of al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian veteran of jihad and the key Al-Qaeda ideologue, but without Bin Laden’s ability to rally radicals around the world.
Hassan Hassan, director of the US-based Center for Global Policy (CGP), said at the weekend that al-Zawahiri had died a month ago of natural causes.
And Rita Katz, director of the jihadist media monitor SITE, said unconfirmed reports were circulating that al-Zawahiri had died.
“It is very typical of AQ to not publish news about the death of its leaders in a timely manner,” she said.
Nonetheless, this is not the first time there have been reports of al-Zawahiri’s death, only for him to re-emerge on several occasions.
“Intelligence agencies believe he is very sick,” said Barak Mendelsohn, associate professor at Haverford College and author of several books on Al-Qaeda.
“Ultimately, if it did not happen now, it will happen soon,” he told AFP.
If either or both men are dead, the group they have left behind can in no way be compared to the network which planned and carried out the September 11 attacks, analysts say.
Its ideology has spawned several franchises across the world that bear its name, including in Africa’s Sahel region, in Pakistan as well as in Somalia, Egypt and Yemen.
But it does not control their actions or the alliances that they may forge on a local level.
Mendelsohn said he expected Al-Qaeda’s leadership to act more along the lines of a “board of advisors” in the future.
“People will listen to AQ central leadership if they want to, not because they think they are bound to obey its view,” he said.
No longer the supreme militant group, Al-Qaeda has seen other outfits grow and has sometimes clashed with them on the ground.
It has been overshadowed by Daesh which sought to carve out a caliphate in Iraq and Syria and coordinated attacks in Europe.
The key challenge of a new leader would be to retain the group’s potency within this context.
Many analysts point to one key candidate — Saif al-Adel, a former lieutenant-colonel in the Egyptian armed forces who joined the Egyptian jihadist movement in the 1980s.
He was arrested and then released, ending up in Afghanistan which was the base for Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, and joining Al-Qaeda.
According to the US-based Counter Extremism Project (CEP) think tank, he was arrested in Iran in 2003 and freed in 2015 in a prisoner exchange. He was still believed to be in Iran in 2018 as one of al-Zawahiri’s key deputies.
“Adel played a crucial role in building Al-Qaeda´s operational capabilities and quickly ascended the hierarchy,” the CEP said.
Mendelsohn said Adel was a “big name” in the movement and “should be the next in line”.
But he stressed that Adel, along with Abdullah, spent several years hiding in Iran, thus possibly staying away from Al-Qaeda’s new generation of leaders.
“I’m not sure how strong his position is within Al-Qaeda, especially now that the old generation, basically all the old guard, is dead.”