Al-Zawahiri’s death is the lowest point in al-Qaeda’s decade-long decline. The future of jihad could be local groups

Last July 31, in the surroundings of Kabulan American drone killed Ayman Al Zawahirileader of al-Qaeda from the death of Osama bin Laden 11 years ago, as well as its ideologue for over twenty years. News that, also thanks to the war in Ukrainewas received with milder tones than those resulting from the elimination of the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadialmost three years ago: al-Zawahiri was in fact the shadow leader of a terrorist organization that had been declining for at least ten years, supplanted in terms of barbarism and operational effectiveness by the same Islamic state and no longer able to exercise a attractive power of relief.

His death opens up to the usual unknown about his successor but it also provides an opportunity to ask what the perspectives of al-Qaeda itself within the jihadist universe and, consequently, which path the very concept of jihadism is taking. “There is a problem in how experts look at the legacy of jihadist leaders like al-Zawahiri and it is the fact that the former often tend to rely on outdated analyzes, dating back to 9/11. But since that day both the world and jihadism have changed and it could be argued that al-Zawahiri himself would have fallen into oblivion were it not for the tendency of the media to report every move or move to one place or another. “, Explains a Daily fact.it Hassan Hassanexpert on jihadism.

“The security authorities must of course always remain vigilant about terrorist threats, but the media obsession with changing the shade of gray of al-Zawahiri’s hair in the videos in which he appeared is of little use. This is a problem that should not be underestimated, when the focus on the aesthetic details of a jihadist leader becomes a priority over the observation of trends on the ground or the analysis of the deep problems that feed radical thinking around the world, both in the Middle East and beyond, ”adds Hassan, who in a recent comment on Newlinesmag calls the death of al-Zawahiri a “anticlimax” compared to the long-term decline of al-Qaeda, then insisting on the misalignment between the perception of analysts – careful to vivisect every movement, even the irrelevant ones – and that of the jihadist world, in which the figure of the Egyptian doctor has lost a lot of ground over the years in terms of popularity.

The campaigns of the “War on terror” started after 11 September 2001 did not reach the aim of eliminating every jihadist from the face of the Earth but certainly they contributed to change the very nature of the jihadist phenomenon, its declinations on the field, with precedence to localized jihad – depending on the conquest of a territory – with respect to the common activities of international terrorismaimed above all at the generation of insecurity and terror in Western societies.

And being jihadism above all a set of ideas, actions and objectives, which then generated what could be called a “Brand” in continuous evolution, in retrospect it is not surprising that over time al-Qaeda has seen the driving force of its “proposal” erode, even in pragmatism surpassed by that ofIsiswhich compared to the first has also been able to better govern its emulators around the world.

Al-Qaeda has somehow given birth to the franchise linked to its pioneering, having been the first organization able to hit with that violence a country like the United States and having briefly stimulated the birth of emulators. A franchise that ISIS then managed to manage in a more fruitful way and at some point even more credible, having governed a territory as large as the United Kingdom (even to the detriment of Qaedist groups, with which he clashed). “The legacy of al-Qaeda – and al-Zawahiri – is related to a mythological aspectthat is, to have been the first organization to deeply strike the heart of the West ”, he explains Arturo Varvelliresearcher at the Rome office of theEuropean Council of Foreign relations. “This obviously also implies that the organizations that arose after her are nothing more than replicas of her, more or less successful, because the ‘original’ brand is attributable to her. Al-Zawahiri represented all this well “, adds Varvelli who also insists on the symbolism of which bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are bearers in the eyes of the jihadist galaxy: that of “Guerrillas without blemish”that is, of jihadists capable of frightening and striking the West in spectacular and above all unpredictable ways, without personally participating in the brutal violence perpetrated, maintaining a condition of “godparents” of terrorist operations, claimed from time to time in an appearance in video.

On the other hand, according to Varvelli, and despite the Qaedist decline in recent years, “the beheading of the leaders of al-Qaeda (in addition to al-Zawahiri we can cite Hamza bin Laden And al-Masrikilled in recent years, ed) constitutes a clear debacle, even if the organization’s ability to regenerate is known. The fact that al-Qaeda has remained a decentralized organization, but also a pyramidal, top-down organization, means that the death of al-Zawahiri is in any case a important handicap“, goes on.

It should also be remembered that al-Zawahiri could enjoy somehow unlimited credit in the eyes of the jihadist world, both as an ideologue of al-Qaeda and as a leader very close to Osam bin Laden. The next leader of the organization is unlikely to have the same kind of “personal” credentials. The legacy of Al Qaeda, Varvelli concludes, lies above all in the acquired and pioneering ability to penetrate widespread impatience of the different social strata of Muslim-majority countries and to polarize them, a capacity that will have to be recovered in some way by the future leader. “ISIS has made this legacy much more concrete, aiming at the ‘here and now’ and governing a very large territory for a period. The ideology of al-Qaeda, on the other hand, is more long-lived and penetrating and has been accompanied by the ability to carry out very spectacular attacks ”.

This is perhaps the most concrete risk for the West, in the face of the undeniable decline of al-Qaeda. The organization – which is now decimated and reduced to hundreds of units between Iraq And Syriaonce its strongholds – it may sooner or later “Return to the scene” in scenography modeand, by organizing large-scale attacks in the West, even without having a real government project like ISIS. The instability of the region, also associated with the gradual American disengagementit could also contribute, as often happened, to remodel and revive local terrorist organizations united under the Qaedist “franchise”.

However, the reality of an organization surpassed in cruelty and extremism from Isis – from which it has even distanced itself, in some situations, losing credibility in the eyes of supporters at least as after the news about the Qaedist leaders who took refuge inIran Shiite, detested by the jihadist galaxy as a country in the hands of the Shiites. In addition, the organization has been infiltrated over the course of twenty years by dozens of Western secret agents, as well as being led, as Hassan recalls, by middle-aged or elderly leadersveterans of wars by now ancient, unable in recent years to stop the continuing bleeding of militants attracted by the concreteness and military organization of ISIS.

Hassan “suggests” that the jihadist groups may have learned an important lesson, and not from al-Qaeda but from those who have fought it for a long time, however, constituting a different type of subject: the pro-Iranian Shiite militias and in some ways also the Taliban. In a long-term perspective, and looking in retrospect, it could be argued that both al-Qaeda and ISIS have lost their wars to date because, in different ways, they fought against the West, thus also favoring the rise of Iran itself in the Arab world. The Taliban and the pro-Iranian Shiite militias, on the other hand, have pragmatically focused on local battles, beyond the rhetoric, and continue to somehow prosper: the former even going to power in Afghanistanthe latter playing a very important role in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

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Videogames entered his life in the late '80s, at the time of the first meeting with Super Mario Bros, and even today they make it a permanent part, after almost 30 years. Pros and defects: he manages to finish Super Mario Bros in less than 5 minutes but he has never finished Final Fight with a credit ... he's still trying.

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