World · August 2, 2022

How the death of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri may impact the Taliban in Afghanistan

When two U.S. Hellfire missiles crashed into the balcony of a house in central Kabul early Sunday morning and killed Ayman Zawahiri, the 71-year-old Al Qaeda leader, he had become increasingly irrelevant to the organization he had helped transform. in one of the most dangerous jihadist groups in the world.

For his role as the chief architect of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Washington had put a $ 25 million bounty on his head. It continued on a long and frustrating manhunt which, after 21 years of red herrings and near misses, focused on a house in the Shirpur district, one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in the Afghan capital about a mile from the former embassy. American.

President Biden said Zawahiri’s murder did justice to “a vicious and determined killer”. Analysts, however, say his death constitutes little more than a symbolic blow to Al Qaeda which has changed a lot since he helped orchestrate the strike that killed 2,977 people, the deadliest foreign attack ever on American soil. . The greater impact of Zawahiri’s death could resonate in Afghanistan, which it dragged into a destructive war with America, and which could now suffer again amid Western concerns about Al Qaeda’s entrenchment in the country and its close ties to the Taliban.

“We shouldn’t underestimate the element of justice, but Zawahiri [at his time of his death] he wasn’t the heavy hitter he once was, “said Talha Abdulrazaq, a researcher at the University of Exeter’s Institute of Strategy and Security.” He was a leading figure, but his reach was very limited. “

Much of this was the result of a relentless two-decade US campaign to upset Al Qaeda and hunt down its leaders. He managed to bring Osama bin Laden, Zawahiri’s friend and predecessor at the helm of Al Qaeda, who was killed in May 2011 when a Navy SEAL team stormed his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

But it also forced a decentralization that saw the main Al Qaeda leadership hand over control to more active affiliates, such as its Yemeni subsidiary, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which operates in the Sahel region; and the Somali Shabab.

Although the so-called emirs, or commanders of those groups, swore allegiance to Zawahiri, it was not clear how much tactical or strategic input he had on their operations. And his influence as a jihadist inspiration further diminished when he failed to rein in the leaders of other affiliates once, including Abu Bakr Baghdadi, whose group, the Islamic State, waged 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.

In contrast to Bin Laden, a charismatic speaker whose video appearances would galvanize the group’s followers around the world, Zawahiri instead often presented himself as a heavily boring uncle, engaging in hour-long sermons that did little to endear him to a new one. generation of jihadists who grew up in an era of branding and social media.

“Many people thought he was already dead. Strategically and operationally for Al Qaeda it was no longer so important, ”said Ashley Jackson, co-director of the Center of the Study of Armed Groups. She added that Al Qaeda has focused more on its affiliates’ local conflict victories than on attacking the United States.

The killing of one of America’s main opponents provides a much-needed boost to Biden ahead of the midterm elections, but it also renewed concerns over his administration’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan last year, effectively allowing the Taliban. to take over the country. The fact that Zawahiri was killed in Kabul was another disturbing indication of Washington’s failure to sift al Qaeda out of Afghanistan even after nearly 20 years of occupation.

Since the US withdrawal, according to a report by a monitoring group presented to the United Nations Security Council in July, Al Qaeda had “enjoyed greater freedom in Afghanistan under the rule of the Taliban.” However, Al Qaeda was not seen as an immediate international threat from a refuge in Afghanistan, the report said, because the group lacked “external operational capabilities and currently do not wish to cause hardship or embarrassment to the international Taliban.” Meanwhile, Zawahiri’s apparent increased comfort and ability to communicate “coincided with the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and the consolidation of power of Al Qaeda’s main allies within their de facto administration.”

Underlying Biden’s withdrawal decision 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 groups that threatened. the United States or its allies, nor would it allow them to launch attacks from Afghan Territory. Biden also insisted that the United States would be able to conduct operations “beyond the horizon” (in other words, drone strikes) to address any terrorist threats in Afghanistan, a promise he said on Monday was fulfilled with. the Operation Zawahiri.

“When I ended our military mission in Afghanistan nearly a year ago, I decided that after 20 years of war, the United States no longer needed thousands of boots on the ground in Afghanistan to protect America from terrorists trying to make us. of evil, “He said.

“And I made a promise to the American people that we would continue to conduct effective counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan and beyond. We did just that. “

But a more thorny question is the extent of the Taliban’s involvement with Zawahiri and what it means for the group’s efforts to gain international legitimacy and restore billions of dollars in much-needed Western aid. Afghanistan’s economy has collapsed in the wake of the US withdrawal, with frozen reserves, sanctions, COVID-19 and now the war in Ukraine, pushing millions to face a winter without enough food, the UN says.

That the increasingly isolated Taliban knew of his presence in the Afghan capital does not seem to be in doubt: a senior administration official said members of the Haqqani network, which enjoys a particularly close relationship with Al Qaeda and is an important part of the The Taliban government evacuated Zawahiri’s relatives from the Shirpur home shortly after the strike in an attempt to conceal their presence. The official added that the Taliban’s reception of Zawahiri amounted to a violation of the Doha agreement.

The Taliban, meanwhile, said it was the US attack that violated the Doha agreement.

“Such actions are a repeat of the failed experiences of the past 20 years and are against the interests of the United States, Afghanistan and the region,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said Monday in a brief statement. He did not mention Zawahiri’s name, but added that “repeating such actions will damage existing opportunities”.

The fight comes at a delicate moment; In late July, Taliban and US delegations met in Tashkent to discuss the release of approximately $ 7 billion in approved reserves of the Afghan central bank, which the US had seized following its withdrawal.

Zawahiri’s attack could strengthen more radical elements within the Taliban leadership, particularly those who disagreed with the deal with the United States in the first place, said Hasan Abu Haniyeh, an expert on jihadist groups with based in Jordan.

“There are those who will say that the United States is not already joining the agreement, that the conversation has already been problematic because the United States does not recognize the Taliban and holds the government funds,” Haniyeh said.

“There could be long-term consequences for this view.”