How Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri’s loss of life could influence Taliban, Afghanistan

By the point two U.S. Hellfire missiles slammed into the balcony of a home in downtown Kabul early Sunday morning and killed Ayman Zawahiri, the 71-year-old Al Qaeda chief had change into more and more irrelevant to the group he had as soon as helped form into one of many world’s most harmful jihadi teams.

For his function as a chief architect of the assaults on Sept. 11, 2001, Washington had positioned a $25-million bounty on his head. It endured in a frustratingly lengthy manhunt that, after 21 years of false leads and near-misses, zeroed in on a home within the Shirpur district, one of many Afghan capital’s extra upscale neighborhoods a few mile from the previous American Embassy compound.

President Biden mentioned Zawahiri’s killing delivered justice to “a vicious and determined killer.” Analysts, nonetheless, say his loss of life constitutes little greater than a symbolic blow to an Al Qaeda that has modified a lot since he helped orchestrate the strike that killed 2,977 individuals — the deadliest overseas assault on American soil. The best influence from Zawahiri’s demise could resonate in Afghanistan, which he drew right into a damaging warfare with the U.S., and which now may undergo anew amid Western issues over Al Qaeda’s entrenchment within the nation and its shut ties with the ruling Taliban.

“We shouldn’t underplay the element of justice, but Zawahiri [at his time of death] was not the heavy hitter he once was,” mentioned Tallha Abdulrazaq, a researcher on the College of Exeter’s Technique and Safety Institute. “He was a figurehead, but his reach was very limited.”

A lot of that was as a result of a relentless two-decades-long marketing campaign by the U.S. to disrupt Al Qaeda and search out the terrorist community’s leaders. It succeeded in getting Osama bin Laden, Zawahiri’s pal and predecessor at Al Qaeda’s helm, who was killed in Could 2011 when a Navy SEAL workforce stormed his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

However it additionally compelled a decentralization that noticed Al Qaeda’s principal management cede management to extra lively associates, equivalent to its Yemeni department, Al Qaeda within the Arabian Peninsula; Al Qaeda within the Islamic Maghreb, which operates within the Sahel area; and Somalia’s Shabab.

Although these teams’ so-called emirs, or commanders, pledged fealty to Zawahiri, it was unclear how a lot tactical or strategic enter he had on their operations. And his affect as a jihadi inspiration waned additional when he did not rein within the leaders of different one-time associates, together with Abu Bakr Baghdadi, whose group, Islamic State, waged a brutal marketing campaign that noticed it set up a so-called caliphate over a 3rd of Syria and Iraq, and, for a time, eclipse Al Qaeda.

In distinction to Bin Laden, a charismatic speaker whose video appearances would impress the group’s followers worldwide, Zawahiri as an alternative usually got here off as a ponderously boring uncle, partaking in hours-long sermons that did little to endear him to a brand new technology of jihadis raised in an period of branding and social media.

“A lot of people thought he was already dead. Strategically and operationally for Al Qaeda he was no longer that important,” mentioned Ashley Jackson, co-director of the Middle for the Research of Armed Teams. She added that Al Qaeda had change into extra targeted on victories in its associates’ native conflicts somewhat than attacking america.

The killing of one among America’s prime adversaries gives a much-needed enhance for Biden forward of the midterm elections, but it surely has additionally renewed issues over his administration’s resolution to withdraw from Afghanistan final 12 months, in impact permitting the Taliban to grab the nation. That Zawahiri was killed in Kabul was one other unsettling indication of Washington’s failure to scour Al Qaeda from Afghanistan even after almost 20 years of occupation.

For the reason that U.S. withdrawal, in response to a report by a monitoring group that was submitted to the United Nations Safety Council in July, Al Qaeda has “enjoyed greater freedom in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.” Nonetheless, Al Qaeda was not considered as posing an instantaneous worldwide menace from a haven in Afghanistan, the report says, as a result of the group lacked “an external operational capability and does not currently wish to cause the Taliban international difficulty or embarrassment.” In the meantime, Zawahiri’s obvious elevated consolation and talent to speak “coincided with the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and the consolidation of power of key Al Qaeda allies within their de facto administration.”

Undergirding Biden’s withdrawal resolution was the 2020 Doha settlement, which the Taliban leaders signed with the Trump administration and which stipulated the Taliban wouldn’t host or cooperate with Al Qaeda and some other group threatening the U.S. or its allies, or permit them to launch assaults from Afghan territory. Biden additionally insisted on the time that the U.S. would have the ability to conduct “over-the-horizon” operations (in different phrases, drone strikes) to cope with any terrorist menace in Afghanistan — a pledge that on Monday he mentioned was fulfilled with the Zawahiri operation.

“When I ended our military mission in Afghanistan almost a year ago, I made the decision 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 who seek to do us harm,” he mentioned.

“And 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.”

However a thornier query is the extent of the Taliban’s involvement with Zawahiri and what it means for the group’s efforts to achieve worldwide legitimacy and restore billions of {dollars} in acutely wanted Western assist. Afghanistan’s economic system has tanked within the wake of the U.S. pullout, with sanctions, frozen reserves, COVID-19 and, now, the warfare in Ukraine pushing hundreds of thousands to face a winter with out sufficient meals, the U.N. says.

That the more and more remoted Taliban knew of his presence within the Afghan capital doesn’t look like unsure: A senior administration official mentioned that members of the Haqqani community, which enjoys a very shut relationship with Al Qaeda and is a serious a part of the Taliban authorities, had evacuated Zawahiri’s family from the Shirpur home shortly after the strike in a bid to cover their presence. The official added that the Taliban’s internet hosting of Zawahiri amounted to a violation of the Doha settlement.

The Taliban, in the meantime, mentioned it was the U.S. assault that violated the Doha accord.

“Such actions are a repetition of the failed experiences of the past 20 years and are against the interests of the USA, Afghanistan and the region,” mentioned Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid in a curt assertion Monday. He didn’t point out Zawahiri’s title however added that “repeating such actions will damage the existing opportunities.”

The fracas comes at a fragile time: In late July, Taliban and U.S. delegations met in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, to debate releasing half of about $7 billion in authorized Afghan central financial institution reserves, which the U.S. had seized within the wake of its withdrawal.

The Zawahiri assault may strengthen extra radical components throughout the Taliban management, particularly those that disagreed with the accord with the U.S. within the first place, mentioned Hasan Abu Haniyeh, a Jordan-based knowledgeable on jihadi teams.

“There are those who will say the U.S. is already not adhering to the agreement, that the conversation has already been problematic because the U.S. doesn’t recognize the Taliban, and holds the government’s funds,” Abu Haniyeh mentioned.

“There may be consequences for this view in the long term.”