Death of a face: on the elimination of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri

Zawahiri’s killing is more important for its implications for the Doha agreement 

August 03, 2022 12:20 am | Updated August 15, 2022 04:37 pm IST

The killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri at a Kabul safe house by an American drone is a clear setback to the Sunni Islamist terror organisation. Zawahiri, the Egyptian doctor-turned-terrorist-in-chief, had been leading al-Qaeda since the 2011 killing of his predecessor, Osama bin Laden, in Pakistan’s Abbottabad in an American commando raid. Zawahiri was an instrumental figure in most of al-Qaeda’s big attacks, from the American embassy bombings in east Africa in August 1998 to the September 11, 2001 attacks. Inspired by the teachings of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood cleric Sayyid Qutb, who was hanged by the administration of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Zawahiri had formed an underground Islamist organisation as a teenager. Later, he headed the dreaded Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which merged with al-Qaeda a few months before the 9/11 attacks. Since then, he had been number two in al-Qaeda, which he took over after bin Laden’s death. Just like his former boss, he was believed to be hiding in Pakistan. But U.S. officials say Zawahiri moved back to Afghanistan earlier this year, perhaps hoping that he would be safer in a Taliban-controlled country. It turned out to be his last hiding place.

The killing is a rare battlefield victory for the Biden administration in counterterrorism. It lends credence to the administration’s claims that it can continue to carry out successful operations “over the horizon” without basing troops in countries such as Afghanistan. U.S. intelligence officials worked for months to confirm Zawahiri’s identity and establish a pattern of life before carrying out the strike. But the attack also raises several questions. The withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan was based on the Doha agreement, reached between the Trump administration, which was later accepted by the Biden administration, and the Taliban. Under the agreement, the Taliban promised to cut all ties with terrorist organisations such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in return for the U.S.’s pullout. The U.S. completed its withdrawal on August 31, 16 days after the Taliban captured Kabul. While the Taliban are fighting the Islamic State, their ties with al-Qaeda have remained mysterious. Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani faction, who is currently the Taliban’s Interior Minister, has been known for his close al-Qaeda links. Given the history of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, it is difficult to believe that Zawahiri was living in one of the wealthiest quarters of Kabul — it also houses several high-profile Taliban leaders, technocrats and former warlords — without the knowledge of the Taliban leadership. Whether Zahawiri’s killing will weaken a decentralised al-Qaeda without an organisational hierarchy is not clear. But a bigger challenge the U.S. and other countries face is to ensure that the Taliban regime does not help terror outfits regroup in Afghanistan. That is the spirit of the Doha agreement.

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