Al-Zawahiri’s Killing and Al-Qaeda’s Future

Al-Zawahiri’s Killing and Al-Qaeda’s Future

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The counterterrorism community believed that Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri had seven lives for he always evaded drones and proved his assassination rumors wrong. For instance, in November 2020, it was speculated that he died of natural causes. But, a year later, he resurfaced in a video after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. However, this was not the case on July 31 when a US drone killed the septuagenarian al-Qaeda leader in Kabul where he was living in a Taliban safehouse with his family. Al-Zawahiri’s killing has come at a time when al-Qaeda was at the cusp of a slow-progressing revival in Afghanistan under the Taliban umbrella. His assassination in Kabul will impact the Taliban’s relations with al-Qaeda and the US. 

Al-Qaeda will never be the same after al-Zawahiri. He led the group in its most turbulent times after the killing of its chief Osama bin Laden in May 2011 in Abbottabad. When al-Zawahiri took over al-Qaeda’s leadership, the war on terror was at its peak and the group’s leaders were dying left, right and center in US drone attacks. During this period, al-Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate Daesh defected and declared its self-styled Caliphate in Iraq and Syria in June 2014. Nonetheless, in the face of these adversities, al-Zawahiri not only kept al-Qaeda’s brand of global militancy alive, but he expanded the group through his franchising strategy of decentralization. During his period, al-Qaeda’s tentacles spread to South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. 

Some analysts believe al-Zawahiri was an uncharismatic leader who could not emerge out of Osama bin Laden’s shadow, a larger-than-life figure for al-Qaeda followers. Bin Laden’s shoes were too big for him to fill.  On al-Zawahiri’s watch, Al-Qaeda failed to carry out a high-profile attack in the West. Others think, he was a competent leader with great organizational skills and strategic vision. Unlike Bin Laden, he was not an ideologue, and he did not even try to become one. Al-Qaeda owes its survival to al-Zawahiri. He deliberately de-emphasized violence and focused on localization and regionalization of al-Qaeda’s militant doctrine. Under this strategy, al-Qaeda’s focus was to help local Muslim armed struggles such as those in Afghanistan and Yemen to achieve victory instead of obsessing over attacks against the West. 

Timing wise, al-Zawahiri’s killing is bad news for the Taliban regime which will come complete one year of its rule in Afghanistan on August 15. The US-led Western bloc was pursuing limited engagement with the Taliban under the least-common-denominator approach to incentivize the Taliban’s cooperative attitude to address its concerns on security, human rights, inclusive power structure and girls’ education. During the recent Tashkent meeting on Afghanistan, the US State Department hinted at unfreezing $3.5 billion of Afghan assets. 

In a recent interview to an Indian news channel, the Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani denied al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan. He maintained that the group is dead now. However, a couple of days later, al-Zawahiri was killed in Kabul in a safehouse belonging to the Haqqani Network. His killing in the face of the Taliban’s denial will erode the little trust the US had in their interim regime. For the West, it will be hard to fathom that al-Zawahiri was living in the same vicinity where the Taliban expected Western countries to reopen their embassies. 

Timing wise, al-Zawahiri’s killing is bad news for the Taliban regime which will come complete one year of its rule in Afghanistan on August 15.

Abdul Basit Khan

The limited progress achieved since the signing of the Doha Agreement in 2020 has been reversed. The Taliban’s desire of getting international recognition will remain unrealized for the foreseeable future. Likewise, their counterterrorism commitments will be taken with a heavy pinch of salt. The international community will not be able to digest the Taliban’s doublespeak of denying al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan while harboring its chief in downtown Kabul. Despite the Taliban commitment to uphold the Doha Agreement, al-Zawahiri’s killing indicates that al-Qaeda has a sanctuary in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. His elimination might also sharpen the intra-Taliban pragmatist-hardliner divide. The Taliban pragmatists and hardliners respectively opposed and supported harbouring al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. 

Al-Qaeda will have to choose al-Zawahiri’s successor soon. Some analysts opine that his killing might prove to be good news for the terror group. The new leader can capitalize on al-Zawahiri’s consolidation, preservation and expansion efforts to shift from a defensive to an offensive posture. The leading contender to succeed al-Zawahiri is his deputy and another Egyptian militant commander Saif al-Adel who lives in Iran. The second most likely successor is Iran-based Abdal-Rahman al-Maghreb, who is al-Zawahiri’s son-in-law and leads al-Qaeda’s media operations. They will have to relocate to Afghanistan to assume the leadership. However, this will not be safe as the security agencies will be closely watching the cross-border movement at the Afghanistan-Iran border. At the same time, their continued presence in Iran is also fraught with risks. In November 2020, Israeli agents assassinated al-Qaeda’s number two, Abu Muhammad al-Masri in Tehran. 

Following al-Zawahiri’s killing, al-Qaeda’s remnants in Afghanistan are likely to go underground and avoid public exposure to avoid detection and elimination until the leadership transition is completed. Al-Zawahiri’s killing has tilted the balance of power within the global militant movement in Daesh’s favour which is on the rebound in Africa. 

Al-Zawahiri’s killing has left the Taliban regime between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, it has eroded the limited goodwill they created with the international community grounded in the Doha Agreement 2020. On the other, it will dent their stature and credibility within the militant fraternity for failing to protect al-Zawahiri. At the same time, Daesh-Khorasan will expedite its anti-Taliban propaganda by framing them as collaborators in the US counterterror strikes against al-Zawahiri. 

- The author is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. Twitter @basitresearcher. 

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