Where Is Al Qaeda's Leader?

Al Qaeda's second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahri speaks from an unknown location, in this still image taken from video uploaded on a social media website June 8, 2011. Ayman al-Zawahri has not been seen in public since September 2014. Reuters

This article first appeared on the Brookings site.

The emir of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri, has not made any public statements since September 2014. His now 11-month-long absence is unprecedented. Next month will be a key test for Zawahri: the anniversary of 9/11—a milestone he has spoken out on for years.

Al-Zawahri was chosen by Osama bin Laden to be his successor. A veteran of 35 years of terrorist plotting, the Egyptian has legitimacy and experience. But he has a lot of other baggage too. He is a poor speaker, prone to ideological fights, and lacks bin Laden's charisma.

Zawahri designated Yemeni Nasir al-Wuhayshi—leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—to be his successor in 2013. Then this June, al-Wuhayshi died in a drone attack in Yemen. Zawahri did not give a eulogy for his deputy.

Then, the Afghan Taliban belatedly announced its leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, the self-appointed "Commander of the Faithful," had died. The Taliban's office in Qatar put the date of his death at April 23, 2013, but provided no reason for why it had not been announced publicly for over two years. The Afghan government said he died in a hospital in Karachi, Pakistan. The Taliban said Omar had not left Afghanistan in the past 14 years—"not even for a day to go to Pakistan or any other country."

The Taliban are determined to cover up the fact that Mullah Omar was a "guest" of the Pakistani intelligence service since 2002, hidden at their safe houses in Quetta and Karachi. Admitting the truth would undermine the Taliban's claim to be nationalist holy warriors fighting NATO's "Crusader" army. It would also deeply embarrass Islamabad. Jihadi circles sometimes said Omar lived after 2002 in "the land of the dirty"—a play of words on Pakistan, which means "the land of the pure" in Urdu.

Yet Mullah Omar was a key ally of Al Qaeda. Both bin Laden and Zawahri repeatedly pledged their allegiance to Mullah Omar, beginning well before 9/11 and repeated often since. Mullah Omar mourned bin Laden's death by SEALs in May 2011. Zawahri repeated his pledge of loyalty to Omar as late as last year. Did he know Omar was dead?

Other major jihadi leaders like Hafez Sayed, the head of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), have publicly eulogized Omar as a hero of the global jihad. LeT even held a vicarious funeral to mark his passing. The LeT is very close to Pakistan's spies. It attacked Mumbai in 2008 in an operation closely connected to the intelligence service known as the ISI.

Three of Al Qaeda's franchises in Syria, Yemen and the Maghreb issued a joint eulogy. They praised Mullah Omar for refusing to surrender bin Laden to America after 9/11. It was a dramatic illustration that the Al Qaeda network is still a united global jihad.

But not a word from Zawahri. A blank slate. No statement for his deputy's death or his titular leader. His organization is still active in Pakistan. Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, the group Zawahri lauded last September in the last message he made, is actively plotting attacks. Pakistani security officials recently killed one of its commanders in Baluchistan. Other senior Al Qaeda operatives have also been killed in Pakistan recently.

So what accounts for the silence? Why is Zawahri missing in action? Of course, only he and his closest circle know for sure.

Perhaps Zawahri is ill and his health precludes any public role. Like Mullah Omar, he may be incapable of activity or even dead. But there is no hint of that in the jihadi websites or chatter.

More likely his silence is deliberate. He is biding his time and focusing on his own security. Al Qaeda has often chosen to out wait its enemies and go underground, biding its time. When confronted with a furious Saudi attack on its infrastructure in the kingdom in 2006, it retreated into Yemen—only to reemerge as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in 2009. It adopted a similar tactic in Iraq, reemerging from the surge after the Americans had gone home. Zawahri knows the Americans are leaving Afghanistan next year; perhaps he is just waiting for them to go home.

September 11, 2015 will be an interesting test. Normally since 9/11, Al Qaeda delivers a major message to mark what it calls "the Manhattan Raid." Often Zawahri comments on the state of the global jihad. If he remains silent this anniversary, it will be very unusual.

Bruce Riedel is director of The Intelligence Project and senior fellow at Foreign Policy Center for Middle East Policy, Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution. He joined Brookings in 2006 after 30 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, including postings in the Middle East and Europe. Riedel was a senior advisor on South Asia and the Middle East to the last four presidents of the United States in the staff of the National Security Council at the White House. This article first appeared on the Brookings site.

Where Is Al Qaeda's Leader? | Opinion