Al-Qaeda has never really been as weak as it has often been portrayed. Many observers believe al-Qaeda does not present a critical terrorism threat in the West; they argue that its key leaders have been killed one after the other, that it was overtaken by the Islamic State, and that its global network has suffered from sustained counterterrorism pressure and internal competition and conflict. But all along, it has remained relevant, expanded its military campaigns in several countries, and maintained a resilient organizational structure filled with senior leaders with years of experience.
In November 2020, rumors spread that al-Qaeda’s longtime leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had died from illness, leaving the group with no apparent heir. Al-Qaeda’s senior leadership has yet to confirm the news, but al-Zawahiri has not issued a statement that would debunk it, either. The organization may now be in the midst of a transition that calls for an accounting of al-Zawahiri’s tenure and his potential successors.