August 2, 2022

IntelBrief: U.S. Kills Al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri with Drone Strike in Afghanistan

Frame grab from video shows Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri (AP Photo)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • On 1 August 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden announced the killing by US forces of Ayman al-Zawahiri, current emir of al-Qaeda and longtime deputy to Osama bin Laden.
  • Al-Qaeda was responsible for the attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001 and for the proliferation of attacks by affiliates and supporters globally over the past two decades.
  • The 9/11 attacks spurred unprecedented global counterterrorism cooperation; recently al-Qaeda was overshadowed by the so-called Islamic State and strategic differences with ISIS fragmented the global jihadist movement.
  • Zawahiri’s death raises questions about the succession and the relevance of al-Qaeda in the current terrorist threat landscape.

On August 1, U.S. President Biden announced that the U.S. had conducted a strike in Kabul over the weekend that resulted in the killing of al-Qaeda’s emir, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Since the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 201, Zawahiri has led al-Qaeda and was widely believed to have returned to Afghanistan following the U.S. withdrawal and subsequent Taliban takeover. Zawahiri’s death while in Kabul was perhaps surprising to those who accepted the Taliban’s assurances about disassociation from al-Qaeda; it suggests that he felt comfortable traveling more freely since the U.S. troop withdrawal one year ago. It reinforced that al-Qaeda and the Taliban remain close to this very day, despite the negotiations in Doha and the hopes of those who believed the Taliban had turned over a new leaf.

As a part of al-Qaeda since its earliest days after being a member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Zawahiri played a central role in planning the 9/11 attacks and has been a key figure in al-Qaeda operations for more than two decades. President Biden however went on to stress that, although Zawahiri has been taken off the battlefield, the threat posed by groups like al-Qaeda would remain. "Hear me now: we will always remain vigilant and we will act and we will always do what is necessary to ensure the safety and security of Americans at home and around the globe.” As the one-year anniversary of the U.S. troop withdrawal approaches, the Biden administration will use the Zawahiri strike to argue that an over-the-horizon counterterrorism strategy can be effective, and to push back against critics who will focus on the implications for U.S. counterterrorism efforts from the botched evacuation last August.

Since the mid-1990s, al-Qaeda has been an extremely lethal terrorist group, launching attacks in August 1998 targeting U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and a spectacular attack in the port of Aden in Yemen in October 2000 against the USS Cole. Along with bin Laden, Zawahiri elevated the threat posed by al-Qaeda from a regional to a transnational one by planning and executing attacks targeting the “far enemy,” the United States, even as Zawahiri himself argued that the “near enemy” was the more important target. The 9/11 attacks were a direct result of this power struggle between the jihadist veterans. Ultimately, al-Qaeda’s attacks shaped the U.S. in two wars in the Middle East and began a still extant global campaign against terrorism which fostered unprecedented cooperation among international governments, bilateral and interagency cooperation and the development of sprawling defense and multilateral lines of effort. Once bin Laden was killed, Zawahiri proved to be a steady hand, focused on keeping the broader organization intact and navigating a series of major challenges. His survival as emir for a decade is itself a testament to his position within the movement, even if not always appreciated by external actors noting his tedious manner and overly pedantic messaging.

The killing and capture of myriad old-guard lieutenants in recent years leaves al-Qaeda with a dwindling bench of potential successors. Even the most well-known al-Qaeda veteran, Saif al-Adel, could have difficulties connecting with the group’s younger cadre, which emerged while he was living in Iran for most of the previous two decades. Given the group’s hostility to Iran and the Shia, al-Adel’s long presence in Iran might taint his candidature in certain circles who may advocate for a jihadist like Abu Abd al-Karim al-Masri to take the helm, given the latter’s crucial involvement to al-Qaeda in Syria. Under Zawahiri’s leadership, al-Qaeda was able to remain a coherent organization, as he delegated autonomy to the branches, affiliates and franchise groups. Criticized as a ‘caretaker,’ Zawahiri was ruthlessly pragmatic and was able to help al-Qaeda weather the storm of the Arab Spring and subsequently, the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS).

Although al-Qaeda has been decimated over the years by personnel losses, including having ISIS poach large numbers of militants in various theaters where both organizations operated, Zawahiri stayed the course. Accordingly, he worked assiduously to cultivate ties with potential recruits more focused on local targets and motivated by parochial grievances in regions engulfed by civil war and insurgency. In both the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, al-Qaeda-linked jihadists have strengthened ties with the organization’s core leadership and remain responsive to its direction. There is also growing evidence that at least some of al-Qaeda’s franchises are once again attracting foreign fighters. The selection of al-Qaeda’s next leader will tell a great deal about the future plans of the organization. President Biden dedicated much of his speech yesterday evening to victims of the September 11 attacks in the United States, noting that “My hope is that this decisive action will bring one more measure of closure,” and reciting a quotation from Virgil that marks the 9/11 Memorial in New York City: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”