The assassination of Ayman al-Zawahiri on 1 August 2022 carried many important implications and repercussions, both at the level of al-Qaeda itself and in terms of its relationship with other armed actors, specifically the Taliban and ISIS. In particular, Afghan reports talked about the involvement of ISIS in the assassination of al-Zawahiri, which raises many questions about the dimensions and aspects of the ISIS that benefit from the killing of al-Zawahiri.
Efforts Toward Exploitation
Afghanistan witnessed a number of indicators and moves that reflected the start of ISIS’s move to exploit the death of al-Zawahiri, which are as follows:
1. The Possibility of ISIS’s Involvement in the Assassination: One of the theories put forward to explain the assassination of al-Zawahiri is the involvement of ISIS in the operation. Afghan reports indicated that since 2020, Shahab al-Muhajir, the leader of ISIS in Khorasan, sent a "letter of loyalty to al-Zawahiri contaminated with chemicals, which could be traced back to the al-Qaeda leader." According to the reports published by the website Akhbar al-Alaan, al-Zawahiri, upon receiving this message, "realized that the United States had located him and had begun trying to target him, which prompted him to change his place of residence." This theory, especially if it is correct, reflects the realization of ISIS that there are multiple benefits to taking out al-Zawahiri.
2. Escalation of Operations Committed by ISIS in Afghanistan: A few days after the assassination of al-Zawahiri, Kabul witnessed a large explosion targeting a gathering of the Hazara, a Shiite sect, while they were celebrating Ashura. As a result, eight people were killed, while ISIS organization announced in its al-Nabaa magazine that it had claimed responsibility for the incident. In a related setting, on August 8, 2022, it was announced that Omar Khalid Khorasani, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, had been assassinated, following the detonation of a landmine in his car while he was on Afghan soil. Some estimate ISIS is to be blamed for the operation, in light of its desire to embarrass the Taliban. On August 12, ISIS assassinated Sheikh Rahimullah Haqqani, a prominent pro-Taliban cleric and one of the most vocal opponents of ISIS, given that he issued many fatwas against the organization. These indicators reflect the organization’s efforts to exploit the assassination of al-Zawahiri on more than one level.
3. ISIS Bases Rejoice over Death of al-Zawahiri: Although there has been no official comment yet from ISIS on the assassination of al-Zawahiri, many of the pages controlled by the organization’s bases on social media celebrated the incident with "joy and gratification," which reflects the general governing stance of the organization. However, the failure to announce this position is most likely related to the organization’s unwillingness to clash with independent "jihadist" currents, or even some currents within al-Qaeda.
The efforts of the ISIS to exploit the assassination of al-Zawahiri were driven by a number of motives, the most prominent of which are as follows:
1. Strengthening the Organization’s Position in the Geography of Afghanistan: Most of the indicators that dealt with ISIS in Afghanistan, known as "ISIS – Khorasan Province," indicate that this branch is the most powerful among the various branches of the organization, which is reflected in the escalation of the operational direction of the branch, both within Afghan geography itself and in regional neighboring countries, as well as the positioning of the organization in most Afghan provinces. Through these moves, the organization aims to strengthen its presence in the geography of Afghanistan, as a gateway to the Asian continent in general, taking advantage of repercussions from the Taliban’s rise to power.
2. Exploiting the Defeatism of Al-Qaeda Sympathizers: Despite the absence of significant and substantial repercussions for the assassination of al-Zawahiri for al-Qaeda, especially in light of the marginal role of al-Zawahiri in recent years due to security pursuits, the old age diseases that afflicted him, and his inability to lead the organization and deal with many of its problems, the assassination will increase the state of "frustration" and "defeatism" that the members and leaders of the organization suffer from. The leader plays a central role in the thought and awareness of these people, and ISIS will seek to leverage that to win over members of al-Qaeda – a strategy that the organization has recently expanded its reliance on. In late July, ISIS electronic committees celebrated that 11 al-Qaeda members had joined the ranks of ISIS.
3. Exploiting the Potential Clash Between the Taliban and al-Qaeda: One of the theories currently being put forward to understand the assassination of al-Zawahiri, is that the Taliban played a role in the assassination, especially since the house in which al-Zawahiri was staying belonged to an assistant interior minister of the Taliban government. Even if this theory is false, the Taliban, in the eyes of al-Qaeda, has failed to perform its responsibility to secure al-Zawahiri, and indicators suggest a clash between the two parties paved the way for the dismantling of the historical alliance between them, a result from which ISIS will be the largest beneficiary. This is because it seeks, on the one hand, to surpass al-Qaeda – its strongest competitor in the arena of global jihad – and on the other hand, seeks to overthrow the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan and take control of the state by exploiting the weakness and disfunction in the country after a year under Taliban rule.
4. Deterioration of Taliban Relations with Neighboring Countries: ISIS will try to exploit the assassination of al-Zawahiri, as well as intensify its operations in Afghanistan in order to disrupt the security situation, and accuse the Taliban of failing to control the security situation and impose stability, which is an issue that would embarrass the Taliban in front of the Afghani people, the surrounding region, and internationally. This is especially the case since imposing security and stability is one of the factors that will determine whether regional and international recognition is granted to the Taliban.
In conclusion, it can be said that ISIS is the biggest beneficiary of the assassination of Ayman al-Zawahiri. Beyond enhancing the organization’s presence and effectiveness in Afghan and Asian geography in general, other benefits include how it helps ISIS compete against al-Qaeda and the Taliban to the point of strengthening the central organization itself. This is because the psychological repercussions of the assassination of al-Zawahiri may push some al-Qaeda members to defect and join ISIS. Finally, the assassination may lead to a clash between al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which would increase the strength of ISIS- Khorasan Province.