By the time two American Hellfire missiles landed on the porch of a house in downtown Kabul early Sunday morning and killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, the 71-year-old al-Qaeda leader had become irrelevant to the organization he once helped form into one of the most dangerous groups. jihadism in the world.
For his role as the chief architect of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Washington placed a $25 million bounty on his head. Continuing in a long, frustrating hunt, after 21 years of false leads and impending failures, she focused on a house in Sherpur, an upscale neighborhood of the Afghan capital a mile from the former US embassy compound.
President Biden said Zawahiri’s killing did justice to a “determined evil killer.” However, analysts say his death is only a symbolic blow to al Qaeda, which has changed so much since he helped orchestrate the strike that killed 2,977 people – the deadliest foreign attack on US soil. The greater impact of Zawahiri’s death may reverberate in Afghanistan, which led it into a devastating war with the United States, which could suffer anew amid Western fears of al-Qaeda’s entrenchment in the country and its close ties to the ruling Taliban.
We should not underestimate the element of justice, but Zawahiri [at his time of death] “He wasn’t the heavy hitter he was before,” said Talha Abdul-Razzaq, a researcher at the Institute for Strategy and Security at the University of Exeter. “He was a figurehead, but his access was very limited.”
Much of this is due to a relentless two-decade campaign by the United States to disrupt al-Qaeda and hunt down the leaders of the terrorist network. It succeeded in making Osama bin Laden, al-Zawahiri’s friend and predecessor at the head of al-Qaeda, who was killed in May 2011 when a US Navy team stormed his headquarters in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
But it also enforced decentralization that saw al-Qaeda’s main leadership ceding control to more active branches, such as its Yemeni branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb operating in the Sahel region. and the youth of Somalia.
Although the so-called emirs or leaders of these groups pledged allegiance to al-Zawahiri, it is not clear the extent of the tactical or strategic contribution to their operations. His influence as a jihadist inspiration also waned further when he failed to rein in the leaders of other once-affiliated groups, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whose so-called Islamic State launched a brutal campaign that saw him establish a so-called caliphate over a third of Syria and Iraq and, for a time, eclipse al-Qaeda.
Unlike bin Laden, the charismatic speaker whose appearance in the video would galvanize the group’s followers around the world, al-Zawahiri often appeared as a very boring uncle, engaging in hours-long sermons that did little to endear him to a new generation of jihadists who They grew up in the country. The era of branding and social media.
Many people thought he was already dead. “From a strategic and operational point of view for al-Qaeda, it is no longer that important,” said Ashley Jackson, co-director of the Center for the Study of Armed Groups. She added that al-Qaeda has become more focused on victories in its local conflicts rather than attacking the United States.
The killing of one of America’s top adversaries provides a much-needed boost to Biden ahead of the midterm elections, but it also renewed concerns about his administration’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan last year, effectively allowing the Taliban to take over the country. Al-Zawahiri’s killing in Kabul was another troubling indication of Washington’s failure to expel al-Qaeda from Afghanistan even after nearly 20 years of occupation.
Since the US withdrawal, according to a report by a monitoring group submitted to the United Nations Security Council in July, al-Qaeda has enjoyed “more freedom in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.” However, al-Qaeda was not seen as an immediate international threat from a sanctuary in Afghanistan, the report says, because the group lacks “an external operational capability and is not currently willing to cause international difficulty or embarrassment to the Taliban.” Meanwhile, al-Zawahiri’s increased comfort and ability to communicate “coincided with the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and the consolidation of the power of key al-Qaeda allies within their de facto administration.”
Supporting Biden’s decision to withdraw was the 2020 Doha agreement, which Taliban leaders signed with the Trump administration and which stipulated that the Taliban would not host or cooperate with al-Qaeda and any other group that threatens the United States or its allies, or allow them to launch attacks from them. Afghan territory. Biden also insisted at the time that the United States would be able to conduct “over the horizon” operations (in other words, drone strikes) to deal with any terrorist threat in Afghanistan — a pledge he said Monday was fulfilled with Zawahiri’s operation.
“When I ended our military mission in Afghanistan about a year ago, I made the decision that after 20 years of war, the United States no longer needs the thousands of soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan to protect America from terrorists who seek to harm us,” he said.
“And I made a promise to the American people that we would continue to conduct effective counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and beyond. We did just that.”
But the thorny question is the extent of the Taliban’s engagement with al-Zawahiri and what that means for the group’s efforts to gain international legitimacy and recover billions of dollars in much-needed Western aid. The United Nations said the Afghan economy had collapsed in the wake of the US withdrawal, with sanctions, frozen reserves and the emerging coronavirus, and now the war in Ukraine is sending millions into a winter without enough food.
The Taliban’s increasingly isolated knowledge of its presence in the Afghan capital does not appear to be in doubt: A senior administration official said members of the Haqqani network, which has an especially close relationship with al-Qaeda and is a major part of the Taliban. The government had evacuated al-Zawahiri’s relatives from Sherpur’s home shortly after the strike in an attempt to conceal their presence. The official added that the Taliban’s hosting of al-Zawahiri amounted to a violation of the Doha agreement.
Meanwhile, the Taliban said it was the US attack that violated the Doha agreement.
“Such actions are a repetition of the failed experiences of the past 20 years and run counter to the interests of the United States, Afghanistan and the region,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a brief statement on Monday. He did not name al-Zawahiri, but added that “the repetition of such actions will harm existing opportunities.”
The brawl comes at a critical time: In late July, Taliban and US delegations met in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, to discuss the release of half of about $7 billion in legal reserves from the Afghan Central Bank, which the US seized in the wake of its withdrawal.
Hassan Abu Haniyeh, an expert on jihadist groups based in Jordan, said Zawahiri’s attack could bolster the most radical elements within the Taliban leadership, especially those who disagree with the deal with the United States in the first place.
“There are those who will say that the United States is not actually abiding by the agreement, and that the conversation was really problematic because the United States does not recognize the Taliban, and it keeps the government’s money,” Abu Haniyeh said.
“There may be long-term consequences for this view.”