Ayman al Zawahiri is alive; Taliban and Al Qaeda “remain close,” UN reports

Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of Al Qaeda who served as Osama bin Laden’d deputy on 9/11, “is confirmed to be alive” and is “communicating freely,” according to a report from the United Nations’ Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team. Additionally, the UN said the Taliban-Al Qaeda alliance remains strong, as reported by FDD’s Long War Journal, and the leaders of Al Qaeda’s branches in North and East Africa have assumed roles in Al Qaeda’s line of succession.

While it is not news that Zawahiri is alive, well, and communicating comfortably, some terrorism analysts previously claimed Zawahiri was dead as recently as Nov. 2020. While not explicitly stated, Zawahiri is likely operating inside Afghanistan.

Member States note that al-Zawahiri’s apparent increased comfort and ability to communicate has coincided with the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and the consolidation of power of key [Al Qaeda] allies within their de facto administration,” the United Nations Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team noted in its latest report on the status of Al Qaeda and its rival, the Islamic State.

Additionally, Al Qaeda’s “leadership reportedly plays an advisory role with the Taliban, and the groups remain close.”

Previously, in 2020, the United Nations Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team reported that the Taliban “regularly consulted with Al Qaeda during negotiations with the United States and offered guarantees that it would honor their historical ties.”

The most recent UN report went on to note that Al Qaeda is established in all areas of the country, as has been previously reported by FDD’s Long War Journal. “Fighters” from Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, Al Qaeda’s branch in South Asia, “are represented at the individual level among Taliban combat units.” From the UN report:

Al-Qaida members reportedly remain in the south and east of Afghanistan, where the group has a historical presence. Some Member States noted a possible shift of core members further to the west to the Farah and Herat Provinces. One Member State reported that Al-Qaida intended to establish a position in northern Afghanistan, mobilize new fighters and generate increased resources.

Al Qaeda’s presence in northern Afghanistan is well known. The group operates through allied Central Asian jihadist groups such as the Turkistan Islamic Party and Ansarullah. Just this spring, Abdul Haq al Turkistani, the head of the Al Qaeda and Taliban-linked Turkistan Islamic Party, celebrated the Eid al-Fitr holiday in Afghanistan. Turkistani has previously been identified by the U.S. Treasury Department as a member of Al Qaeda’s central Shura, or executive committee.

The UN report also noted that Al Qaeda is better positioned to supplant the Islamic State and “to be recognized again as the leader of global jihad.”

The UN reported Al Qaeda’s “propaganda is now better developed to compete with ISIL as the key actor in inspiring the international threat environment, and it may ultimately become a greater source of directed threat.”

Finally, the UN report provided insight on Al Qaeda’s line of succession. Saif al Adel, the longtime Al Qaeda leader and veteran, is second behind Zawahiri. Next in line are Abdal-Rahman al-Maghrebi, Yazid Mebrak, the emir of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Ahmed Diriye, the leader of Shabaab, which is Al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa.

Al Adel has long been a top leader in Al Qaeda, and he is known to have sheltered in Iran along with other key terrorist leaders. He is now also believed to be inside Afghanistan.

Maghrebi, a native Moroccan, is Zawahiri’s son-in-law, and has served in a number of senior roles within Al Qaeda. The State Department has described him as the “longtime director” of As Sahab, Al Qaeda’s central media arm and the “head” of the group’s “External Communications Office,” where he “coordinates activities with” Al Qaeda’s “affiliates.” Maghrebi has also been Al Qaeda’s “general manager in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2012,” a key role as top Al Qaeda leaders shelter in the region.

The presence of Mebrak and Diriye in the chain of succession should come as no surprise. Al Qaeda began diversifying its leadership and giving key leadership roles to its branch leaders as the U.S. stepped up its targeted killing of top Al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan beginning in the mid-2000s. For instance, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula emir Nasir al Wuhayshi served as Al Qaeda’s general manager before he was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2015. Nasser bin Ali al Ansi, another key AQAP leader, served as Al Qaeda’s deputy general manager before he was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2015. And Mebrak’s predecessor, Abdelmalek Droukdel, was Al Qaeda’s third in command before he was killed in a French raid in Mali in 2020.

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has been a boon for Al Qaeda and other allied terror groups. Afghanistan is now in the Taliban’s full control, and Al Qaeda has enjoyed the same spoils the group had before 9/11: safe haven, and with that the ability to regroup, rest and train its fighters, while they plot and plan to execute attacks against the West.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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