What the killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri means for the terrorist group al-Qaeda

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Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of al-Qaeda and one of the world’s most wanted terrorists, was killed in a US drone strike in Kabul.

The 71-year-old was widely considered the mastermind behind the notorious terrorist group and its vision for attacking the West – including the September 11, 2001 attacks, which catapulted al-Qaeda from relative obscurity to a household name in the United States.

President Biden said in an address to the nation on Monday that Zawahiri’s death – after evading capture for decades – sent a clear message: “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 eliminate you.

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri killed at 71

The strike is the latest success US operation against al-Qaeda and Islamic State leaders. Biden said Zawahiri’s death should help ensure that Afghanistan can no longer “become a haven for terrorists” and a “launching pad” for attacks on the United States.

Security experts say the operation demonstrates that the United States is still capable of conducting precision strikes in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of troops from the field last year. On the other hand, he also highlights the apparent will of the Taliban to accommodate al-Qaeda members in the region.

Here’s a look at what Zawahiri’s death means for al-Qaeda.

When was al-Qaeda founded?

Al-Qaeda grew out of battlefield ties forged during the Afghan insurgency against the Soviet Union, which was redirected to the fight against the West.

The group, founded in 1988 by Osama bin Laden, attracted disgruntled recruits who oppose US support for Israel and dictatorships in the Middle East.

When the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 1996, they gave al-Qaeda the sanctuary that allowed it to run training camps and plan attacks, including 9/11.

The World Created by 9/11: A Weakened, But Persistent Al-Qaeda Threat

What was Ayman al-Zawahiri’s role in al-Qaeda?

Americans knew him as al-Qaeda’s No. 2, bin Laden’s bespectacled, bushy-bearded deputy. In fact, for a long time say the observershe provided the ideological leadership, while bin Laden was the public face of the terrorist group.

Zawahiri merged his Egyptian militant group with al-Qaeda in the 1990s. For decades he was β€œthe mastermind behind attacks on Americans,” Biden said on Monday – including the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemenwhich killed 17 American sailors and injured dozens more, and the bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania which left hundreds dead and dozens injured.

“Killing Americans and their allies – civilians and military – is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in every country where it is possible to do it,” Zawahiri wrote in a 1998 screed.

After al-Qaeda’s forced withdrawal from its base in Afghanistan in early 2002, it was largely Zawahiri who led the group’s resurgence in the lawless tribal region across the border in Pakistan, The Washington Post wrote in an obituary on Monday.

What happened to al-Qaeda after Bin Laden’s death?

When bin Laden was killed in 2011, his number 2, Zawahiri, took the lead.

Although he was the intellectual force behind the terrorist movement, some experts say Zawahiri did not have bin Laden’s charisma. He remained a figurehead but failed to prevent the outbreak of the Islamist movement in Syria and other conflict areas after 2011.

Its grip on a vast network of affiliates across Africa, Asia and the Middle East has been weakened. The Islamic State terror group, spun off from al-Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate, has sought to position itself as a more ruthless alternative.

What is ISIS-K? Here’s what the Taliban takeover means for al-Qaeda and the Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate.

In his later years, Zawahiri largely avoided public view, presiding over al-Qaeda in a time of decline, with most of the founding personalities of the group are deceased or in secret.

At the time of the US withdrawal last August, analysts described al-Qaeda in Afghanistan as “a skeleton of himself”, after two decades of conflict and counter-terrorism operations. A United Nations report in July estimated that there was up to 400 al-Qaeda fighters remaining in Afghanistan.

Some security experts feared an al-Qaeda reboot under the Taliban. At the time of his death, US intelligence said Zawahiri, rather than hiding, was living with his family in downtown Kabul, in a high-security residential area where many senior Taliban leaders reside.

What will happen to Al-Qaeda now?

Analysts say that in the past al-Qaeda has adapted to the loss of leaders, with new figures emerging in their place. Today, however, the group is splintered, with branches and subsidiaries spanning the globe, from West Africa to India. The the question remains whether these groups will focus on local conflicts or coalesce for more global ambitions.

Charles Lister, a terrorism expert at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said al-Qaeda “now faces an acute succession crisis”. Senior leader Saif al-Adel is technically the next to take the helm, but he is based in Iran, which has caused affiliates to question his credibility in the past, lister wrote Monday. Its potential rise could be the “knell” of al-Qaeda’s aspirations as a global organization as its affiliates strengthen their independence from the group, Lister said.

Al-Qaeda has not carried out any major terrorist attacks in the United States or Europe in recent years, after bombings that killed 52 people in London in 2005. Some attackers were inspired by al-Qaeda, such as a Saudi military trainee who killed three American sailors at a US base in Florida in December 2019. A knife-wielding assailant who fatally stabbed a man and a woman in an attack near London Bridge the same year had previously been a member of an al-Qaeda inspired cell.

Claire Parker and Joby Warrick contributed to this report.

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