What does al-Zawahiri’s death tell us about the United States’ counterterrorism efforts post-Afghanistan?
US President Joe Biden recently confirmed the death of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of terrorist group al-Qaeda, following a US drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan.
The strike was authorised following a brief from the intelligence community, which identified al-Zawahiri’s location earlier this year and had been tracking the terrorist’s movements in Kabul.
The former al-Qaeda chief had served as Osama bin Laden’s second in command, assuming leadership of the terrorist group following bin Laden’s death in May 2011.
Al-Zawahiri was involved in the planning of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, which resulted in the deaths of 2,977 people.
He also helped orchestrate the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and played a role in the bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
“He carved a trail of murder and violence against American citizens, American service members, American diplomats, and American interests,” President Biden said.
“…Now, justice has been delivered and this terrorist leader is no more. People around the world no longer need to fear the vicious and determined killer.”
President Biden stressed the United States would continue to authorise counterterrorism operations around the world in defence of its national security.
“We make it clear again tonight, that 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,” President Biden added.
Subscribe to the Defence Connect daily newsletter.
Be the first to hear the latest developments in the defence industry.
But according to Jeff Smith, research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, al-Zawahiri’s death has brought to light frailties in the US’ counterterrorism efforts following the military’s Afghanistan withdrawal.
Smith observes Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul confirms fears Afghanistan would again become a “safe haven for international terrorists”.
“Eliminating one of the world’s most wanted terrorists in an operation with no civilian casualties was an unmitigated victory for the US,” he writes.
“But the operation — and Zawahri’s presence in Kabul — raises important questions.”
Smith says the most interesting question relates to the source of the intelligence which led to the US operation to take out al- Zawahiri.
“Who tipped off the CIA as to Zawahri’s whereabouts? More interesting, whose airspace was transited to get the drone in position for a strike?” he writes.
“Islamabad insists the Pakistani government was not consulted. Was Pakistani airspace used without the government’s permission? Was a secret deal cut? Or did the drone approach via one of the Central Asian countries with or without their permission?”
With other “more concerning” questions, he continues, related to the link between al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Haqqani network.
Smith claims the Taliban’s capture of Kabul in August last year revealed the Haqqani network — a violent extremist group — had “emerged as the greatest victor of the Afghan war”.
“Out-manoeuvring the traditional Afghan Taliban leadership, Haqqani network leader Sirajuddin Haqqani (son of the group’s infamous founder, Jalaluddin Haqqani) assumed control over internal security in Afghanistan and appointed other Haqqani network leaders to senior posts in the new government,” he continues.
“This was bad news. Throughout the course of the Afghanistan War, the Haqqani network was implicated in the bloodiest and most high-profile terrorist attacks on US and Afghan government targets.”
This is particularly concerning, Smith adds, given al-Zawahiri was found in a house owned by Sirajuddin Haqqani.
However, according to Smith, this should not have come as a surprise to the United States.
“In the 1980s, Jalaluddin Haqqani was a key figure in recruiting Arab militants from the Persian Gulf to join the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan,” he continues.
“Al-Qaeda’s first training camp was established in Haqqani network territory in Pakistan.
“This is why I was deeply concerned about the possibility of an al-Qaeda resurgence after the Taliban-Haqqani takeover of Kabul last August.”
He goes on to cite a UN report, which described the Haqqanis as a “the primary liaison” between the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
“The bad news is that the Taliban faction governing Afghanistan today is even more operationally and ideologically aligned with al-Qaeda than the old Afghan Taliban leadership,” he writes.
The presence of the man who was arguably the world’s most notorious terrorist in a Haqqani-owned safehouse in Kabul only confirms fears that Afghanistan may yet again become a safe haven for international terrorists.”
But Smith claims despite this resurgent terrorist threat, the killing of al-Zawahiri demonstrates the US still has the capability to strike high-value targets in Afghanistan without a permanent military presence in the country or a stable relationship with neighbouring Pakistan.