Conflict Alerts # 537, 4 August 2022
In the news
On 1 August, president Joe Biden announced that Al Qaeda Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed in a counterterrorism operation by the CIA in Kabul's Sherpur area. He said: "Now justice has been delivered, and this terrorist leader is no more. No matter how long it takes, no matter where you hide, if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out." Further, he claimed that intelligence had located Zawahiri's family in Kabul earlier in 2022 and that the airstrike was carried out over the weekend after he approved the "carefully planned" operation a week ago "..after being advised conditions were optimal."
According to officials, the operation to kill Zawahiri had been planned for months. After receiving intelligence from several sources on Zawahiri, the CIA tracked his movements until they received authorization for the strike, and targeted him on a balcony with two Hellfire missiles on 30 July. The drone strike is the first known US intervention inside Afghanistan since its withdrawal in August 2021.
Following the announcement, Taliban chief spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed the attack in Kabul and condemned it as a "violation of international principles." He said: "Such actions are a repetition of the failed experiences of the past 20 years and are against the interests of the US, Afghanistan, and the region." However, the statement did not name Zawahiri.
Issues at large
First, Zawahiri's killing and Al Qaeda. Zawahiri, AlQaeda's second leader was an Egyptian doctor who merged his militant group with Al Qaeda in the 1990s. Since then, he was considered Al Qaeda's intellectual pillar. After Osama Bin Laden was killed, he took over as the leader. Although Al Qaeda is a highly splintered group with branches and affiliates operating from Africa to Asia, Zawahiri's killing is another blow to the group as it would need to adjust to the loss of another leader. Additionally, the group is likely to see a leadership crisis as senior leader Saif al-Adel who is the next in line is based in Iran, causing affiliates to question his credibility.
Second, the nexus between the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The presence of Zawahiri in one of Kabul's busiest areas highlights the nexus between the group and the Taliban. A UNSC report published in July 2022 cites that the Al Qaeda leadership remains close to the Taliban. The report adds that the group enjoys greater freedom in Afghanistan under Taliban rule but confined itself to advising and supporting the de facto authorities. Additionally, the report states that Al Qaeda's senior leadership enjoyed a more settled period in early 2022, with leaders like Zawahiri being able to communicate freely since the Taliban's takeover.
Third, the US-Taliban deal. Under the Doha Agreement, the Taliban promised to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a haven for Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. However, the US has been wary of the Taliban's commitment despite its several claims that it is adhering to the deal. Zawahri's killing questions the Taliban's commitment to the deal but also highlights the US commitment to continue counterterrorism operations despite not having a military presence in Afghanistan.
First, the threat posed by Al Qaeda. It is unlikely that there will be any immediate consolation for Al Qaeda following the killing of Zawahiri. This development would push the group to further splinter and divide over who would lead the group next.
Second, Al Qaeda and the Taliban relationship. The nexus between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban would change depending on how the details of this incident unfold. As of now, the Taliban has treaded strategically to keep away criticism from the US and kept Al Qaeda at bay by not making any claims on the development. However, the group would likely continue to remain in Afghanistan as long as the Taliban is in power.
Third, the US's counterterrorism operations. The killing of Zawahiri highlights the US ability to still successfully carry out counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan. However, the issues become sensitive as indiscriminatory airstrikes could result in retaliation from the Taliban.