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The Al Qaeda That Ayman al-Zawahri Leaves Behind

When President Biden announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan last year, one of his main justifications was that Al Qaeda had been so “degraded” that the United States no longer needed to maintain a military presence in a country once used as a Qaeda sanctuary. Mr. Biden also vowed to hold the Taliban to its pledge not to allow terrorists to threaten the United States from Afghan soil.

Yet less than a year after the Taliban completed their recapture of Afghanistan, the head of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri, was hiding out in a house in downtown Kabul, where he was killed in an American drone strike on Sunday.

Despite 20 years of war, tens of thousands dead and hundreds of hours of negotiations between American diplomats and the Taliban, including on the future of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the Taliban felt emboldened. The group apparently had no qualms about hosting the terrorist network’s top leader, much as it did in the pre-9/11 era, in a safehouse owned by a top aide to the senior Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani.

The Biden administration is portraying al-Zawahri’s killing as a counterterrorism success, papering over its assumption that Afghanistan would not be a haven for terrorists despite the Taliban’s return to power. Mr. Biden omitted any mention of the Taliban in his speech announcing the strike against al-Zawahri.

The administration clearly misjudged Al Qaeda’s trajectory in Afghanistan and U.S. influence over the Taliban. Al Qaeda patiently waited for the Taliban’s return to power and leveraged the U.S. withdrawal to place its top leader under Taliban protection in the capital of Afghanistan. For their part, the Taliban violated promises not to cooperate with terrorist groups and apparently remained committed to hosting and protecting Al Qaeda.

Al-Zawahri had a long-running reputation as someone who lacked the grand strategic instincts, personal story and magnetism of Osama bin Laden. In 2011, John Brennan, then President Barack Obama’s assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism, described him as “an aging doctor who lacks Bin Laden’s charisma and perhaps the loyalty and respect of many in Al Qaeda.”

But a careful look at Al Qaeda over the past decade shows that al-Zawahri spearheaded the group’s steady buildup after the U.S. killing of Bin Laden in 2011. He managed to instill in the group the sense that it was a global vanguard, emphasizing unity and political cohesion. That approach was often unappealing to younger prospective jihadis who wanted to engage in more violence but helped Al Qaeda stabilize itself amid losses in American drone strikes.

Even after critical Qaeda affiliates in Iraq and Syria defected and became a vicious competitor in the shape of ISIS, al-Zawahri managed to consolidate a formidable network of affiliates across Africa, South Asia and the Middle East. He navigated a complicated relationship with the Iranian government and, most significantly, preserved Al Qaeda’s strategic relationship with the Taliban. By 2022 he was again leading the group with public messaging and provocations via video and audio releases — and providing strategic direction to the group’s affiliates. Most significantly, according to the U.S. government, he was also giving guidance from Kabul to his organization on targeting the United States.

Al Qaeda’s global network will certainly feel the pinch of al-Zawahri’s loss. The group’s leadership succession may not be straightforward, because some of the leaders in line to succeed al-Zawahri were reportedly in Iran until last year. And as members of a Salafi-jihadist group that is deeply anti-Shia, their association with a Shia religious state like Iran may taint them. But Al Qaeda is likely to manage the transition; it may even be able to leverage al-Zawahri’s so-called martyrdom to emerge as a stronger organization.

The new leader of Al Qaeda will inherit a more formidable and dangerous organization than the one Bin Laden left behind for al-Zawahri. Today Qaeda affiliates in East Africa and the Sahel region are on the march, and the Taliban remain protective of core members of Al Qaeda, as shown by al-Zawahri’s presence in Kabul and other terror groups — like the Pakistani Taliban — that align with Al Qaeda. The new leader may continue to boast the Taliban’s win in Afghanistan as Al Qaeda’s win — and put the group in an offensive gear, which could lead to more terrorist violence.

Where does this leave the United States? The Biden administration can take some comfort in the fact that it has a workable “over the horizon” military strategy for landlocked Afghanistan — combining surveillance, covert partners inside Afghanistan, precise strike capabilities and regional relationships — to locate and disrupt threats without having boots on the ground.

However, there is no escaping the fact that Al Qaeda continues to fester under the Taliban. This means that the U.S.-Taliban engagement of the past several years has failed. That engagement was predicated on the belief that the Taliban — which hosted Bin Laden before Sept. 11 — would change their ways, seek better relations with the world and prevent Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist safe haven. Al-Zawahri’s sanctuary in Kabul makes clear that America can’t rely on the Taliban’s word.

Unsurprisingly, the Taliban see the targeting of al-Zawahri in Kabul as a blow to their honor and a violation of Afghan sovereignty and the U.S.-Taliban agreement of 2020, and they could respond by stepping up support to Al Qaeda and allied terrorist groups in Afghanistan. (The U.S. government says the Taliban have violated tenets of the agreement by hosting Al-Zawahri.)

Al-Zawahri’s successful targeting in Kabul doesn’t mean that the threat is now over. If anything, it demonstrates that Al Qaeda is resurfacing in Afghanistan and that despite sanctions, the Taliban are comfortable, secure and enabling threats against the region and the Western world.

Asfandyar Mir (@asfandyarmir) is a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace. His research is on the international relations of South Asia, U.S. counterterrorism policy and political violence, with a regional focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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