The death of al-Qaeda’s longtime leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, proves how dangerous it is to lead the world’s most notorious Islamist terrorist organization. Given the group’s international reach and the fact that it has survived nearly 30 years of conflict with America’s war machine, many observers have been surprised by the fact that al-Qaeda did not have a succession plan in place. This is especially odd considering how many of al-Qaeda’s top leaders have either been captured by U.S. and allied forces or killed in a variety of colorful ways by the U.S. military (including both Zawahiri’s predecessor, Osama Bin Laden).
To observe the way the Biden Administration celebrated Zawahiri’s explosive death in Taliban-controlled Kabul, one could be forgiven for believing this meant the threat from al-Qaeda is over. Not true. In fact, the threat is evolving—as it did in the aftermath of the killing of Bin Laden in 2011.
And while no actual succession plan was in place for the infamous terrorist group, there are at least two men who appear to be the likeliest figures to assume power. One is longtime al-Qaeda leader, Egyptian-born Saif al-Adel and the other is Abd al-Rahman al-Maghribi. The former was an old comrade of Zawahiri, and the latter is Zawahiri’s son-in-law. Both men, however, have lived in Iran for years.
The fact that these two men have resided in Iran for as long as they have indicates they’re doing more than just taking refuge from American bombs: they’re likely under the protection of Iranian intelligence. Some might even say the two men are under house arrest. This is an especially dangerous condition. Tehran has already proven its ability to bring some of the world’s largest and deadliest terrorist organizations under its bloody spell. Many know about Iran’s long-standing relationship with the Lebanon-based Shiite Muslim terror group, Hezbollah.
Few realize that as far back as 2017, Iran had started building ties with Fatah in the Palestine Authority. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) led for decades by Yasser Arafat was a Soviet-backed quasi-Marxist revolutionary movement opposed to Israel’s existence as a predominantly Jewish, democratic state in the Arab world. Fatah is the PLO’s political successor. It rules over the Palestinian Territories. In 2022, Islamist Iran and Marxist Fatah are comrades. Further, in 2020, Iran solidified its partnership with the other Palestinian terrorist group, Hamas. With these new connections, Tehran has worked to unite its Hezbollah allies with Fatah and Hamas, in an alliance Tehran seems to believe will defeat its Israeli foes in a coming war.
Should Iran bring al-Qaeda under its green banner of Islamist fundamentalism, armed with nuclear weapons it would become a direct and existential threat to the United States. Iran’s terrorist proxies, with their variegated ideological and religious beliefs, would prove extremely difficult for Western security experts to anticipate and would have a truly global reach.
What’s more, any potential nuclear terrorist event would be hard to attribute to Iran. Effectively, Tehran could coordinate a global nuclear terrorist attack and shield itself from direct American reprisals by getting their proxies—especially a potentially Iran-influenced al-Qaeda—to take the brunt of the consequences. All while Iran gets America to weaken itself fighting a terrorist group as Iran captures more of the Middle East.
The rise of either Saif al-Adel or Abd al-Rahman al-Maghribi from their perches in Iran is not a fait accompli. The very fact that these two men have been removed from the daily fighting in neighboring Afghanistan means that the other leaders of al-Qaeda, such as the leaders of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Al Shabaab, the Somali-based al-Qaeda franchise, are suspicious of both men. Plus, these groups are predominantly Sunni Muslim and are not disposed to following those who’ve fallen under the sway of Shiite Iran.
What’s more, the center of gravity in the Global War on Terror has shifted away from the Middle East and into the peripheries of the Muslim world, in Africa and South Asia. So, these other al-Qaeda leaders are more likely to favor elevating someone engaged in the fighting in either Africa or South Asia as opposed to someone who has been living in relative safety in Iran and may have become an agent of the Shiite government there.
Still, the likelihood of one of these two men rising to power in al-Qaeda is high. If they were to rise to power, al-Qaeda as a unified entity may fracture. Yet the component parts of al-Qaeda would remain a threat to any region in which they operate. Even a faction of al-Qaeda with the financial and military support of Iran would be a severe threat to the West.
The United States ignores these developments—and Iran’s expanding threat to America—at its own peril. Even now, as the Biden Administration claims it intends to continue former President Donald J. Trump’s highly successful Mideast foreign policy, such as the Abraham Accords that linked the Sunni Arab world with that of Israel against Iran, Washington holds out hope that it might restore the ill-advised nuclear deal that former President Barack Obama signed in 2015. The European Union, which the Biden Administration has increasingly tied the United States to during its tenure, is the loudest proponent of restoring the deal.
While Biden himself has lamented that the nuclear agreement with Iran is all but dead, he has a way of saying one thing and doing another. Allowing for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons and advanced ballistic missiles as Tehran has become the mothership of global terrorism will not bring peace for the United States. It will ensure that a variety of threat actors, Hezbollah or al-Qaeda, for example, can more effectively threaten the United States—with the implicit backing of Iran.
Iran has recognized the outsized impact on the United States terrorist organizations can have and how America and its allies struggle in responding to those threats. By consolidating its hold over some of the region’s biggest terror groups, Tehran may be laying the groundwork for what will be a season of (possibly nuclear) terror directed against America, Europe, Israel, and others.
Meanwhile, Joe Biden and his team keep missing the warnings and blundering ahead. Iran’s play for control of al-Qaeda may be one of the biggest strategic benefits the rogue state has ever enjoyed. And it could cost the United States dearly if Biden is not careful.