12 years after Bin Laden killed, what remains of al-Qaeda?

Al-Qaeda considers itself the springboard from which all jihadist groups emerged, but today, it is very bankrupt, weak and losing popularity to other jihadist groups.

A passerby takes pictures of newspaper headlines reporting the death of Osama Bin Laden in front of the Newseum on May 2, 2011, in Washington, D.C.
A passerby takes pictures of newspaper headlines reporting the death of Osama Bin Laden in front of the Newseum on May 2, 2011, in Washington, D.C.

12 years after Bin Laden killed, what remains of al-Qaeda?

Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden was killed on 2 May 2011 in a special US operation in Pakistan during US President Barack Obama's tenure. He was succeeded by his Egyptian deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was killed in Afghanistan four years later in July 2015.

Since October 2023, Egyptian terrorist Mohamed Salah al-Din al-Halim Zaidan, better known by his alias, Saif al-Adel, has been the group's leader. Born and raised in Egypt, he studied commerce at Cairo University and enlisted in al-Qaeda in 1989, joining Bin Laden first in Sudan and then in Somalia and Afghanistan.

Those who know him describe al-Adel as hesitant, intellectually weak, and lacking any charisma. At 63, he doesn’t appeal to a new generation of jihadists who are mainly in their twenties, taking into account that since 2001, the terror organisation has failed to achieve a mass appeal as it used to, suffering from a major shortage of funds while being outflanked and outmuscled by new groups like Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham and the Islamic State (IS).

IS was technically born out of al-Qaeda, and the two groups held almost identical jihadist programmes and ideologies until they split and took up arms against one another back in 2014. Both suffer from crippling setbacks today and from lacklustre leaders who do not enjoy the same stature in the jihadist community as Bin Laden and IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed by the Americans in 2019.


Al-Qaeda considers itself the springboard from which all jihadist groups emerged. It views IS as nothing but an offshoot group that went astray and would never have emerged in the first place had it not been for the financial and military support that it received from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq after the US occupation of 2023. While al-Qaeda now relies on financial donations from its adherents after its purse strings went dry in 2011, IS resorts to unconventional ways to make money, like kidnap for ransom money, oil theft, and trafficking in both arms and human beings.

For all intents and purposes, al-Adel has become a démodé relic of the past, unable to cope with changing times. Unlike IS, it doesn’t strive to control territory like the latter did when overrunning the cities of Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor, Mosul, and Tikrit. It considers this unsustainable, counter-productive, and too costly in terms of arms and manpower and prefers saving its arms for real battles. He is no longer interested in reestablishing an Islamic state which taxes its subjects in return for public services like education, security and media.

While al-Qaeda emerged from the midst of a global conflict in Afghanistan during the late 1980s, IS was born out of the wars in Iraq and Syria and remained a local organisation despite all efforts by al-Baghdadi to expand internationally.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed leader of the Islamic State (IS).

There is no such thing in al-Qaeda as “foreign fighters” because it refuses to differentiate between them on the grounds of nationality or ethnicity, whereas, in IS, the division lines are crystal clear and foreign fighters are always given a backseat in favour of Iraqi and other Arab jihadists.

And finally, al-Qaeda cannot compete with IS when it comes to the former’s claims to the Islamic Caliphate, which requires the caliph to be a Quraishi (from the clan of Mecca notables) and from Ahl al-Bayt (Family of the Prophet). Neither applies to al-Adel.

Modern-day limitations

Al-Adel understands al-Qaeda's modern-day limitations, topped with the fact that he is older than most of his followers— old enough actually to be their grandfather. Living in total seclusion, he is distant from them, both physically and emotionally, never meeting to bond and hear out their worries and complaints.

He is also intellectually weak in Islamic fiqh (jurisprudence), and the fact that he was a protégé of Bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s founding fathers means little for the new generation of jihadists. It’s a plus, no doubt, but not enough to give him street credibility. In short, he lacks Bin Laden’s money and al-Zawahiri’s intellect.

Among the issues facing al-Adel today is the fact that he is Egyptian—the second in a row to take command of al-Qaeda. In an organisation packed with jihadists from all over the Muslim world, this works against him and has created a mummer of discontent from Iraqis, Syrians, and Yemenis, who find themselves driven out from al-Qaeda’s top command, arguing that Egyptian representation is not proportional to the number of Egyptians in the organisation.

Al-Qaeda is led by a seven-man council that includes departments for political, military, media, and security affairs. We only know one name: Abu Ayman al-Masri, who, like al-Adel, is an Egyptian in charge of security affairs. Four of the others, at least, are Egyptian.

During his final years, al-Zawahiri ordered major de-centralisation in al-Qaeda, which was completely disorganised, resulting from a lack of money and his advancement of age, where he became more concerned with matters of jurisprudence and theology than actual day-to-day leadership.

Al-Qaeda considers itself the springboard from which all jihadist groups emerged, but today, it's bankrupt, weak and losing popularity to other jihadist groups.

He allowed terror groups around the world to carry the al-Qaeda banner and stage operations in its name, even though they had received none of al-Qaeda's money, arms, or training. More often than not, these operations were amateurish, and many of them failed, which hurt its reputation in the jihadist community.

The only group that continued to receive regular cash and training from al-Zawahiri was the al-Qaeda branch in Yemen, given his close friendship with its then-leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi (aka Abu Basir). In fact, some claim that al-Zawahiri was even considering naming him successor, but Abu Basir was killed before him in July 2015.

After Bin Laden's death, al-Zawahiri failed to find new sources of income for the terror group in light of strengthened international measures in cash flow after the rise of IS. But more importantly, he didn't appoint a successor, paving the way for al-Adel to assume the job, although many considered themselves far more worthy.

He now relies on donations for funding from Muslims worldwide and the Haqqani Network in Afghanistan, but that is only enough to keep al-Qaeda on life support. It is nowhere near enough to revamp and restructure the organisation or to hire new recruits.  He tried, with no luck, to get funds from al-Shabab in Somalia and Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wa al-Muslimeen in the Sahel, but both showed no interest in funding a post-Zawahiri al-Qaeda, preferring instead to focus on their own organisations and carry out operations in their home territory.

A vehicle allegedly belonging to the Islamic State group in West Africa (ISWAP) is seen in Baga on August 2, 2019.

Weak and bankrupt

This makes al-Adel head of a very bankrupt and weak organisation. Apart from retaining the group's name, it does not resemble the al-Qaeda from two decades ago in any shape, way or form. He lost his previous training camps and had no main headquarters for al-Qaeda to meet and recruit.

In addition to this, he faces rising opposition to his leadership within the al-Qaeda family. One contender is Muhammad Abbatay (aka Abd al-Rahman al-Maghrebi), al-Zawahiri's son-in-law and leader of the terror group in Maghreb. He never took al-Adel seriously but was forced to accept him due to the latter's seniority, waiting for the chance to topple and replace him. Al-Maghrebi calls for a complete revamp of al-Qaeda and drafting a new manifesto that is more suited for 2024, which al-Adel refuses, insisting on keeping the same rhetoric and tactics that prevailed since the group's inception. 

Al-Maghrebi doesn't trust the Taliban and calls for a gradual disengagement from them, whereas al-Adel vehemently opposes this, believing they are the strongest leg of al-Qaeda left standing.

Abu Ubaidah Youssef al-Annabi opposes both men. A third current is led by Ahmad al-Deri, head of the al-Shabab in Somalia. For his part, Sirajuddin Haqqani in Afghanistan is believed to harbour an ambition of merging what remains of al-Qaeda into the Haqqani Network. And finally, there is strong opposition to al-Adel in Yemen from Rashid al-Sanaai and Mohammad Remi, son of slain al-Qaeda leader Mohammad Remi, a former protégé of Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The one card left in al-Adel's hand, which he has failed to utilise properly until now, is al-Qaeda's ideology, which still holds sway with millions across Africa and the Arab world, particularly in the al-Hol camp in Kurdish-controlled Syria.

To recruit them, al-Adel has to either mend relations with al-Qaeda in Morocco, the Sahel or Yemen, which remains difficult because of the bad blood with their respective leaderships. Africa remains a lucrative incubator which can be penetrated due to lax borders, abundance of arms, poverty, and the steady withdrawal of French counter-terrorism forces. Syria and Iraq remain off-limits to him, however, given that he cannot compete with IS.

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