How the death of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri could impact the Taliban in Afghanistan

As two US Hellfire missiles slammed into the balcony of a house in downtown Kabul early Sunday morning and killed Ayman Zawahirithe 71-year-old leader of al-Qaeda had become increasingly irrelevant to the organization he once helped turn into one of the largest in the world. dangerous jihadist groups.

For his role as a chief architect of the attacks where Sept. On Dec. 11, 2001, Washington placed a $25 million bounty on his head. He persisted in a long and frustrating manhunt which, after 21 years of false leads and near misses, focused on a house in Shirpur district, one of the Afghan capital’s most affluent neighborhoods. , about a mile from the old American Embassy.

President Biden said Zawahiri’s killing brought justice to “a vicious and determined killer”. Analysts, however, say his death amounts to nothing more than a symbolic blow to al-Qaeda that has come a long way since he helped orchestrate the strike that killed 2,977 people – the most foreign attack. deadliest ever perpetrated on American soil. The greatest impact of Zawahiri’s disappearance could resonate in Afghanistan, which he dragged into a destructive war with America, and which may now suffer again amid Western concerns over al-Qaeda’s entrenchment in the country and its closure. links with the Taliban.

“We should not minimize the element of justice, but Zawahiri [at his time of his death] was no longer the juggernaut it once was,” said Talha Abdulrazaq, a research fellow at the University of Exeter’s Institute for Strategy and Security. “He was a figurehead, but his reach was very limited.”

Much of this was the result of a relentless two-decade-long campaign by the United States to disrupt al-Qaeda and hunt down its leaders. He succeeded to get Osama bin LadenZawahiri’s friend and predecessor as leader of al-Qaeda, who was killed in May 2011 when a Navy SEAL team stormed his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

But it also forced a decentralization that saw al-Qaeda’s main leadership hand over control to more active affiliates, such as its Yemeni branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which operates in the Sahel region; and the Somali Shabab.

Although the so-called emirs or commanders of these groups pledged allegiance to Zawahiri, it was unclear what tactical or strategic input he had on their operations. And his influence as a jihadist inspiration waned further when he failed to rule the leaders of other former affiliates, including Abu Bakr Baghdadi, whose group, the Islamic State, waged a brutal campaign which saw him establish a so-called caliphate over a third of Syria and Iraq, and, for a time, eclipse Al-Qaeda.

Unlike Bin Laden, a charismatic speaker whose video appearances would galvanize the group’s followers around the world, Zawahiri instead often presented himself as a heavily boring uncle, delivering hour-long sermons that did little to endear him to a new generation of jihadists. raised to an era of branding and middle social

“A lot of people thought he was already dead. Strategically and operationally for al-Qaeda, he wasn’t that important anymore,” said Ashley Jackson, co-director of the Center for the Study of Armed Groups. She added that al-Qaeda had focused more on winning local conflicts for its affiliates rather than attacking the United States.

The killing of one of the United States’ main adversaries gives Biden a much-needed boost ahead of the midterm elections, but it has also rekindled concerns over his administration’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan l last year, allowing the Taliban to take over the country. The fact that Zawahiri was killed in Kabul was another troubling indication of Washington’s failure to drive al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan, even after nearly 20 years of occupation.

Since the US withdrawal, according to a report by a monitoring group submitted to the UN Security Council in July, al-Qaeda has “enjoyed greater freedom in Afghanistan under Taliban rule”. Yet al-Qaeda was not considered to pose an immediate international threat from a safe haven in Afghanistan, according to the report, because the group lacked “an external operational capability and does not currently wish to cause any difficulty or embarrassment. to the Taliban”. Meanwhile, Zawahiri’s seemingly increased comfort and ability to communicate “coincided with the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and the consolidation of power by key al-Qaeda allies within their de facto administration. “.

Under-roof Biden’s withdrawal decision was the Doha Agreement 2020, which the Taliban leaders signed with the Trump administration and which stipulated that the Taliban would not harbor or cooperate with Al-Qaeda and any other group threatening the United States or its allies, nor allow them to launch attacks from Afghan territory. Biden also insisted at the time that the United States would be able to conduct “over the horizon” operations (in other words, drone strikes) to deal with any terrorist threat in Afghanistan. — a promise he says was fulfilled on Monday with the Operation Zawahiri.

“When I ended our military mission in Afghanistan nearly 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 harm us,” I said.

“And I promised the American people that we would continue to conduct effective counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and beyond. That is exactly what we have done.

But a thornier question is the extent of the Taliban’s involvement with Zawahiri and what that means for the group’s efforts to gain international legitimacy and restore billions of dollars in badly needed Western aid. The Afghan economy has collapsed following the US withdrawal, with frozen supplies, sanctions, COVID-19 and now the war in Ukraine, pushing millions to face a winter without enough food, according to the UN.

That the increasingly isolated Taliban knew of his presence in the Afghan capital does not seem to be in doubt: a senior administration official said that members of the Haqqani network, which has particularly close relations with Al-Qaeda and forms a significant part of the Taliban government had evacuated Zawahiri’s relatives from the Shirpur house soon after the strike in an attempt to conceal their presence. The official added that the hosting of Zawahiri by the Taliban amounted to a violation of the Doha agreement.

The Taliban, meanwhile, said it was the US attack that violated the Doha agreement.

“Such actions are a repeat of the failed experiments of the past 20 years and run counter to the interests of the United States, Afghanistan and the region,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said Monday in a statement. brief statement. He did not mention Zawahiri’s name, but added that “repeating such actions would harm existing opportunities”.

Failure comes at a delicate time; In late July, Taliban and US delegations met in Tashkent to discuss the release of half of the approximately $7 billion in authorized reserves of the Afghan central bank, which the US had seized following its withdrawal.

Zawahiri’s attack could bolster more radical elements within the Taliban leadership, especially those who disagreed with the deal with the United States in the first place, said Hasan Abu Haniyeh, a Jordanian expert on jihadist groups.

“Some will say that the United States is already not respecting the agreement, that the conversation has already been problematic because the United States does not recognize the Taliban and holds the government funds,” Haniyeh said.

“There may be consequences for this long-term view.