Ayman al-Zawari, leader of al-Qaeda and conspirator of the September 11 terrorist attacks, has been killed in a drone strike in the Afghan city of Kabul, according to the US government.
Al-Zawari succeeded Osama bin Laden, and his death marked “another measure of closure” for the families of those killed in the 2001 atrocities, US President Joe Biden said during a televised address on August 1, 2022.
The operation came almost a year after American troops withdrew from Afghanistan after decades of fighting there. The Conversation asked Daniel Milton, a terrorism expert at the US Military Academy at West Point, and Haroro J. Ingram and Andrew Mines, research fellows at George Washington University’s Extremism Program, to explain the significance of the attack on al-Zawari and what it says about the US counter-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan under the Taliban testifies.
Ayman al-Zawari was an Egyptian-born jihadist who became al-Qaeda’s top leader in 2011 after his predecessor Osama bin Laden was killed in a US operation. The rise of al-Zawari followed years in which the al-Qaeda leadership had been devastated by US drone strikes in Pakistan. Bin Laden himself had struggled in the years leading up to his death to exert control and unity over the global network of al Qaeda members.
Al-Zawari succeeded bin Laden despite a mixed reputation. Although he had a long history of involvement in the jihadist struggle, he was viewed by many observers and even jihadists as a languid orator with no formal religious credentials or battlefield reputation.
Lacking the charisma of his predecessor, al-Zawari’s image as a leader was not helped by a tendency to engage in long, meandering, and often outdated speeches. Al-Zawari also sought to quash rumors that he had been a prison informant while in Egypt and, as detailed by author and journalist Lawrence Wright, acted as a wedge between the young bin Laden and his mentor, Abdullah Azzam.
Al-Zawari’s influence further waned during a series of popular uprisings known as the Arab Spring that swept across North Africa and the Middle East when it appeared that al-Qaeda had been marginalized and unable to contain the To effectively exploit the outbreak of war in Syria and Iraq. Analysts and supporters alike saw al-Zawahiri as a symbol of an al-Qaeda that was outdated and quickly overshadowed by other groups it had propelled onto the global stage, most notably Islamic State.
But with the collapse of the Islamic State group’s caliphate in 2019, the return of Taliban-allied al-Qaeda to power in Afghanistan, and the persistence of al-Qaeda allies, particularly in Africa, some experts argue that al- Zawari al-Qaeda is conducting at its most challenging time and the group remains a potent threat. In fact, a senior Biden administration official told the Associated Press that at the time of his death, al-Zawari continued to provide “strategic direction” and was considered a dangerous figure.
Killing or capturing high-ranking terrorist leaders has been a key counter-terrorism tool for decades. Such operations remove terrorist leaders from the battlefield and force succession struggles that can disrupt group cohesion and expose security vulnerabilities. In contrast to the Islamic State, which has had clear leadership succession practices four times since the death of its founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006, al-Qaeda’s is less clear-cut. Al-Zawari’s successor will be only the third leader of the movement since its inception in 1988.
The top candidate is another Egyptian. Saif al-Adel, a former colonel in the Egyptian army and, like al-Zawari, a member of al-Qaeda’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad affiliate, is linked to al-Qaeda in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya created a global jihadist threat. His reputation as an explosives expert and military strategist has earned him a high profile within the al-Qaeda movement. There are a number of other possibilities behind al-Adel, with a recent UN Security Council report identifying several possible successors.
Either way, we would argue that al Qaeda is at a crossroads. If al-Zawari’s successor is widely recognized as legitimate by both the core of al-Qaeda and its offshoots, it could help stabilize the movement. But any ambiguity surrounding al Qaeda’s successor plan could lead to the new leader’s authority being questioned, which in turn could further fracture the movement.
Evidence suggests that the presence of al-Qaeda as a global movement will survive the death of al-Zawari as well as bin Laden. The network has had a number of recent successes. The Taliban, longtime allies, successfully took control of Afghanistan with the help of al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent – a subsidiary now expanding operations in Pakistan and India. Meanwhile, affiliates across the African continent – from Mali and the Lake Chad region to Somalia – remain a threat, with some expanding beyond their traditional areas of operations.
Other offshoots, like the group’s Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, remain true to the core and are keen to revive overseas attacks against the US and its allies, according to the UN monitoring team.
Now, al-Zawari’s successor will try to keep al-Qaeda supporters loyal while striving to remain a potent threat.
The American withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 raised questions about whether the US could keep up pressure on al-Qaeda, ISIS-K and other militants in the country.
US officials explained that an “over-the-horizon” strategy — launching surgical strikes and special operations from outside a particular state — would allow the US to deal with emerging problems such as terrorist attacks and group resurgence.
But many experts disagreed. And when a misguided US drone strike killed seven children, a US-based humanitarian worker and other civilians last fall, that strategy came under scrutiny.
But for those who doubted that the US still had any desire to go after key terrorists in Afghanistan, the assassination of al-Zawari provides a clear answer. The strike reportedly involved long-term surveillance of Zawari and his family and heated debates within the US government before gaining presidential approval. Biden claims it was conducted with no civilian casualties.
At the same time, it took the US 11 months under the Taliban to attack its first high-value target in Afghanistan. This is in contrast to the hundreds of airstrikes carried out in the years leading up to the US withdrawal.
The strike took place in a neighborhood of Kabul populated by senior Taliban officials. The safehouse itself belonged to a senior adviser to Sirajuddin Haqqani, a US-wanted terrorist and senior Taliban leader.
Aiding and supporting al-Zawari was in violation of the Doha Accords, in which the Taliban pledged “not to cooperate with groups or individuals who threaten the security of the United States and its allies.” The circumstances of the strike suggest that if the US is to conduct effective over-the-horizon operations in Afghanistan, it cannot count on Taliban support.
The attack on al-Zawari also tells us little about whether the post-disengagement US strategy can contain other jihadist groups in the region, such as ISIS-K, which are vehemently anti-Taliban and expanding in Afghanistan.
Indeed, we believe that if more jihadists find the Taliban too weak to protect the top leaders of al Qaeda and its affiliates, while at the same time being unable to rule Afghanistan without US aid, many ISIS will -K for will be the best choice.
These and other dynamics speak to the many challenges in pursuing an over-the-horizon counterterrorism effort in Afghanistan that are unlikely to be resolved by occasional high-profile drone strikes and assassinations.
By Haroro J. Ingram, Senior Research Fellow at the Extremism Program, George Washington University; Andrew Mines, Research Associate at the Program on Extremism, George Washington Universityand Daniel Milton, Director of Research, US Military Academy West Point
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