Al-Qaeda plans to announce a false cause of death for former leader Ayman al Zawahiri, who has already been killed by a US airstrike, according to senior sources in the jihadist movement.
As planned, al-Qaeda would announce that Zawahiri had died of ill health, even though Joe Biden held a press conference to say that Osama bin Laden’s successor was killed in a precision attack in Kabul’s exclusive neighborhood six months ago.
When in 2011 the US eliminated bin Laden in a night raid on his Abbottabad compound in Pakistan, al-Qaeda recognized his death within four days, and Zawahiri unhesitatingly became the new “al-Qaeda emir general.”
Sources close to al-Qaeda told The Daily Beast that the Taliban pleaded with al-Qaeda not to confirm or deny Zawahiri’s death. “The cover-up of Zawahiri’s martyrdom is the result of secret deals between the Taliban and al-Qaeda,” said a senior jihadist in the region.
The Taliban, who regained control of Afghanistan in August 2021, are in complete denial. After the strike, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said they would conduct a full investigation into the July strike, but still no official word.
The attack was embarrassing for the Taliban on many levels. The group agreed to sever ties with al-Qaeda during the 2019 Doha peace deal with the Trump administration, so it was extremely awkward when it turned out that the leader of the terrorist group lives in one of the capital’s most luxurious neighborhoods. From the perspective of other jihadists, the US strike also made it clear that the Taliban were unable to provide protection.
A source close to jihadist elements said evidence had been uncovered that the CIA had even penetrated the area where Zawahiri was hiding and allegedly discovered spy cameras and other surveillance devices in the house – even in Zawahiri’s bed. In September, the CIA released a highly detailed model of the mansion at its museum in Virginia, indicating the high level of detail gathered about the house.
Whichever way you look at it, the killing further isolated the Taliban. Their first regime was overthrown by the US in 2001 when Washington demanded the extradition of Osama Bin Laden after 9/11, but they refused.
Having lost one government to al-Qaeda, they are determined not to be destabilized by other jihadists this time. Sources say the Haqqani Network, a semi-autonomous branch of the Taliban organization, is lobbying al-Qaeda to keep quiet.
Al-Qaeda agreed to the plan – allegedly releasing a new Zawahri recording last month – even though attributing the emir’s death to disease rather than to the Americans would deprive him of the honor of martyrdom.
“Zawahiri and Osama wished for martyrdom at the hands of infidels, both granted their wish, but al-Qaeda is hiding it to save the Taliban from catastrophe and the consequences of the presence of the supreme leader in the Taliban capital,” said a second senior jihadi official who met Zawahri.
A new leader has not yet been chosen. Jihadist sources in the region told The Daily Beast that three al-Qaeda members are vying to become the global organization’s new emir; Saif al Adel, al-Qaeda veteran wanted by the US since 1998, Yasin al-Suri, reportedly a senior financier of an Iran-based terrorist organization, and Zawahiri’s son-in-law Abdal Rahman al Maghrebi, a Moroccan national who lived in the house where Zawahiri was killed according to sources close to al-Qaeda.
The new emir is also expected to be based in the Afghan-Pakistani-Iranian region rather than the Arabian Peninsula as the Taliban now control Afghanistan and the Tehreek Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have an increasing presence in the tribal Pashtun areas of the northwest Pakistan. Many high-ranking Taliban and al-Qaeda activists have been hiding in the region for two decades, despite the heavy presence of Americans and allies.
Another former jihadist close to al-Qaeda elements in the region says the pursuit of Zawahiri’s successor has also been stalled due to Taliban influence. “The Taliban Told Al-Qaeda: ‘Once We Sacrificed Our Regime For Al-Qaeda. If al-Qaeda confirms his death in the Kabul attack, it will embarrass the Taliban, so they cover up the death and successor and plan to announce it as a natural death,” he told The Daily Beast. “Al-Qaeda wanted to have a public funeral under the Islamic Taliban regime, but the Taliban wouldn’t allow it.”