One Less Terrorist and Many Questions – Analysis

By Dov Katzenstein

Smoke rises from a house following a US drone strike in the Sherpur area of Kabul. (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)

The killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida co-founder and mastermind, was welcome news for civilized people the world over and carries additional significance to those touched directly by the attacks of September 11, and other deadly acts coordinated by the long-sought terrorist. At the same time, his elimination, in the heart of Kabul, raises fundamental questions about the implications for the ruling Taliban and for the Biden administration, for whom the operation is a deeply mixed bag.

The strike, by what the public knows, was a wonderful feat of military intelligence work. The U.S. traced al-Zawahiri to a private home where, after a long period on the run, he came to reunite with his family. His movements were watched for months, and the attack was not planned until times that he was likely to be alone in the residence were known. That knowledge was successfully harnessed and the man who occupied the inglorious position as the world’s most wanted terrorist was killed by a missile when he stepped out onto his porch.

“Justice has been delivered, and this terrorist leader is no more,” declared President Joseph Biden in his remarks announcing the news. “People around the world no longer need to fear the vicious and determined killer. The United States continues to demonstrate our resolve and our capacity to defend the American people against those who seek to do us harm.”

Al-Zawahiri’s elimination carries both practical and symbolic importance. An Egyptian physician, he was a prominent thinker in the circle of Islamic extremists who professed that they could best achieve their goals through a war of terror against Western civilians. He played a central role in planning the 9/11 attacks as well as the 1998 strikes on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which first alerted many Americans to al-Qaida’s existence and desire to harm U.S. citizens.

He served as Osama bin Landen’s chief deputy. As the fallout of 9/11 forced bin Laden deeper underground, and formally after his death, al-Zawahiri took the reins of al-Qaida. Amid competition from ISIS branches and other Islamist terror groups, and constant pursuit by the U.S. and allies, al-Qaida has struggled to maintain its prominence in the mujahedeen [“holy warriors”] world. It remains to be seen whether his death will cause the terror organization to further diffuse.

The strike’s success is a feather in President Biden’s cap and could give the administration a mild, but much needed popularity boost. Each recent presidency has been able to claim the elimination of one high profile terrorist, former President Barak Obama won the trophy with bin Laden’s killing and former President Donald Trump’s administration cut off ISIS’ nominal head by eliminating Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
For President Biden, al-Zawahiri’s killing buttresses an argument his administration made during its botched evacuation from Afghanistan, that the counterterrorism operations presently needed in that country could be carried out using “over the horizon” tactics, which did not require U.S. soldiers on the ground.

“We make it clear again tonight that no matter how long it takes, no matter where you hide, if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out,” said the President in his recent remarks about the strike. “I made a promise to the American people that we’d continue to conduct effective counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and beyond. We’ve done just that.”
Yet, al-Zawahiri’s location does little to raise confidence that America’s withdrawal has not opened Afghanistan’s doors to terrorists.

Taliban leaders condemned the U.S. strike and claimed they were unaware of al-Zawahiri’s presence. They added that no group in Afghanistan poses a threat “to any country, including America.”

Yet, the facts are not on the Taliban’s side. Al-Zawahiri’s residence was in the heart of downtown Kabul, only blocks from the key government offices, including the Taliban’s intelligence service. Moreover, the home he lived in belongs to a high-level aide to Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is interior minister in the Taliban’s government and a close advisor to Supreme Leader Mullah Haibatallah Akhundzada. Mr. Haqqani is also the present head of the terror network that bears his family’s name, and that was responsible for several lethal attacks during the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan.

“We believe that there were senior members of the Haqqani Network who are affiliated with the Taliban who did know that al-Zawahiri was in Kabul,” National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, told an NBC News interviewer. “There may have been other members of the Taliban that did not know.”

Many felt that despite its effort to gain international legitimacy, the Taliban was never likely to distance itself from al-Qaida or other allied terror groups. During the U.S. presence in the county, al-Qaida continued to enjoy a free hand in Taliban controlled areas, using its hospitality to carry out strikes against American troops on multiple occasions. When the Taliban returned to power in 2021, dozens of al-Qaida members were among hundreds of terrorists and criminals released from prison.

President Joe Biden speaks from the Blue Room Balcony of the White House Monday, Aug. 1 (Jim Watson/Pool via AP)

A recent report by the U.N. Security Council said that al-Qaida has a “safe-haven” in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan but backed up the group’s claim that its does not pose an immediate international threat “because it lacks an external operational capability and does not currently wish to cause the Taliban international difficulty or embarrassment.”

Whether the second part of that assessment is correct or not, the Taliban took a serious risk in sheltering al-Zawahiri at a time when it is appealing for international financing and when it is engaged in talks with the U.S. over the fate of some $3.5 billion in frozen Afghan assets in overseas locations.

Their decision to host, or at least turn a blind eye, to the top name on America’s terrorist wanted list, will certainly endanger these goals.

“By hosting and sheltering the leader of al-Qaida in Kabul, the Taliban grossly violated the Doha Agreement and repeated assurances to the world that they would not allow Afghan territory to be used by terrorists to threaten the security of other countries,” said Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in a statement. “They also betrayed the Afghan people and their own stated desire for recognition from and normalization with the international community.”

In dashing slim hopes that the Taliban sincerely wanted to transform into a governing entity that would avoid blatantly violating international norms, the hardest blow will likely land on the Afghan people who have suffered from decades of war, terrorism, and financial turmoil. Its economy is now on the verge of collapse and has shrunk by a third since the Taliban takeover. With international consensus that little has changed in the Taliban’s ways, chances of foreign aid and investment that could help the situation there become bleaker.

The strike also reignited criticism of President Biden’s ill-fated decision to unilaterally pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan — even though the Taliban had not lived up to its part of the Doha agreement — sealed with the Trump administration just before the COVID pandemic hit.

Al-Zawahiri’s presence under the Taliban’s nose did little to bolster confidence in the President’s promises that Afghanistan would not again become a safe-zone for terrorists.

At a press conference in the White House, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby pushed back against that perception.

“I think if you were to ask some members of al Qaida — ask them how safe they feel in Afghanistan right now, I think we proved to a fare-thee-well this weekend that it isn’t a safe haven and it isn’t going to be, going forward,” he said.

Repeatedly pressed by reporters, Mr. Kirby was non-committal on whether the Taliban would face consequences for harboring al-Zawahiri.

“I think the Taliban already has paid a price just in terms of the now very public acknowledgement that they were harboring Zawahiri and his family, and that the United States did exactly what the President promised we would do,” he said. “The Taliban have a choice now — well, they always did, but they certainly have a new choice — and that is they can comply with their agreement under the Doha Agreement — comply with their commitments under the Doha Agreement, or they can choose to keep going down a different path. And if they go down a different path, it’s going to lead to consequences not just from the United States, but from the international community.”

Still, especially against the fresh memories of how the President’s poorly calculated withdrawal from Afghanistan played out, skepticism that his administration could prevent terror groups from taking root in the country again abounded.

“The fact that he was killed there shows that al-Qaida believes Afghanistan is safe enough for its leaders to regroup there,” Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the editor of the Long War Journal, told Time magazine. “They’re getting rest, they’re having access to all of the Taliban state.”

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