During his remarks made on the morning of August 2, 2022, American President Joe Biden announced that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al-Qaeda, had been assassinated in Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul. Biden did not go into precise details during his comments about the operation, but rather provided a general context for the attack. He had authorized the hit on al-Zawahiri nearly a week ago after previously determining his place of residence earlier this year. Up until now, Al-Qaeda has not made any formal response neither confirming nor denying al-Zawahiri’s death. The Taliban has been similarly silent on the matter, only issuing a statement criticizing the American strike on a home in the Afghani capital. Yet, the statement did not indicate that al-Zawahiri was residing in that targeted house.
In light of Biden’s brief words on the al-Zawahiri incident, as well as information related by some American newspapers revealing the particulars of the American strike, the following key facts can be established:
1. Unconventional targeting patterns were used: The US utilized drones in their plan of attack, marking the first time US forces have carried out a military strike since its withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. Despite al-Zawahiri’s importance as a high-value target for the US, they did not resort to airdropping soldiers as they had for other previous high-value operations, such as with the previous leaders of Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden; the previous leader of ISIS, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi; and his predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Parachuting troops allows them to ascertain the arrest or elimination of those prominent terrorist leaders. However, in this case, the US chose instead to execute a drone strike. Perhaps this decision was made due to the difficulty and risky nature of dropping into Afghanistan, an environment unsuitable for this sort of military offensive. Doing so would also possibly have led to a fierce confrontation with elements of the Taliban. Thus, the US used a drone strike so as not to further escalate tensions with them and risk the consequences of military intervention in Afghanistan without the Taliban’s full cooperation or coordination.
2. Modern high-precision missiles: In the context of confronting any possible ramifications (excluding the political ones) to targeting al-Zawahiri militarily, some Western assessments indicate that the US drone forces used a smart missile meant to reduce human casualties and collateral damage. They likely launched an R9X Hellfire missile, which can hit a target with a concentrated, non-explosive strike, thereby preventing any additional fatalities. President Biden made this point clear during his statement by acknowledging that none of al-Zawahiri’s family were killed in the attack, nor were any other people harmed as a result of the drone strike.
3. Washington’s special ops capacity: The timing of the strike carries many significant implications, as it was executed near the end of the first year since the full withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. In spite of this and prospects that the US will continue tracking and pursuing terrorist activities (specifically Al-Qaeda) with less troops on the ground, US reports suggest that this has granted the US greater freedom of movement in the field. Rather, it has paved the way for it to expand its use of drone warfare in environments unsuitable for traditional land tactics. Furthermore, the peace agreement with the Taliban will not hinder the US from targeting those terrorists on its most wanted list, regardless of how long that may take. According to Biden, these wanted terrorists include anyone involved in targeting the US, its forces, and its interests.
4. Mysterious pre-strike intelligence efforts: President Biden did not reveal any specific details in his speech about the preparations going into the al-Zawahiri strike. Given the diminishing role of US intelligence field operations following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the process for locating the Al-Qaeda leader’s residence entails a number of possibilities. First, the US may want to safeguard its network of Afghan collaborators within the country who gather data about Al-Qaeda and ISIS movements.
The second possibility is that the US may have received support from some parties within the Taliban itself, especially since it is unlikely that al-Zawahiri’s place of residence would be known to all Taliban leaders and members. The third possibility is that the US received accidental intelligence about al-Zawahiri happening to be at the targeted home, which was then verified. This could be the case considering the relaxed security procedures surrounding al-Zawahiri. In recent months and in the wake of the Taliban’s seizing control over the country, al-Zawahiri had dropped some pretenses of security and began recording several broadcasts on Al-Qaeda affiliated channels. In this way, the leader had been more publicly vocal and present than compared to years past.
Based on US assurances, the following are the possible impacts of the operation to kill Ayman al-Zawahiri:
1. Strengthening confidence in Biden domestically and abroad: The possible impacts from al-Zawahiri’s assassination can be divided between its effect on the US and world. With regards to the international impact, al-Zawahiri’s death sends a message to US allies and partners of America’s persistence in its anti-terrorism efforts and targeting of terrorist group leaders. The reverberations from the US’s sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan still ring ominously around the world. Since the US seemingly had no specific arrangements to keep the Taliban from power, the move essentially handed over control of Afghanistan to the latter. This, alongside other factors and concerns, cast the US as an unreliable friend to its allies and partners, especially with regard to confronting security challenges. However, during the Jeddah Security and Development Summit, President Biden did confirm his country’s continued commitment to fighting terrorism.
Domestically speaking, there are several possible effects that al-Zawahiri’s death may have on the American public. As Bin Laden’s No. 2, he was involved in several operations that targeted the US and its interests, most notably the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In this context, taking out al-Zawahiri could be seen as a symbolic gesture of "vengeance" among Americans, as well as an attempt to stop possible future threats to US interests. Perhaps Biden also wishes to enhance his standing among the American people and turn the tide against his declining popularity. Recent Bloomberg opinion polls have shown that his approval rating has dropped to 39% in light of several domestic challenges and hardships. However, these numbers may shift in his favor depending on future polls taken in the next few months.
2. Limited possible consequences for Al-Qaeda: Al-Zawahiri was a controversial figure in jihadi circles, especially when comparing his personality and impact with those of his predecessor, Osama bin Laden, with the comparison often tending in the latter’s favor. These contrasts became even more stark after the founding of ISIS, when fierce transnational competition broke out among terrorist organizations in the arena of "global jihad." As a result of this contest, Al-Qaeda lost some of its affiliates to ISIS, with some of its own elements breaking away to join the latter. Despite the rise of ISIS and the US’s killing of several Al-Qaeda leaders in various locales and countries, al-Zawahiri was able to maintain cohesion among some of Al-Qaeda’s groups.
However, given the decentralized relationship between the group’s leaders in Afghanistan and its affiliates around the world, his death is not expected to lead to any significant or prolonged shake-ups within Al-Qaeda or its branches. Each branch is granted free range in its operations and in providing for its own sources of funding, as long as they adhere to the general framework of the central leadership’s directives. That being said, the extent of the impact of al-Zawahiri’s death will depend on who succeeds him as the leader of Al-Qaeda. The big question now is whether the branches will approve of the new leader’s character and ability to plot the course for the organization’s development in the near future, as well as compete with ISIS.
3. Various negative repercussions for the Taliban: Al-Zawahiri’s killing may impact the Taliban in two major ways. It will definitely influence its relations with the US, since President Biden made no mention of any coordination with the Taliban in its drone strike, even though the peace agreement signed by both parties in Qatar stipulates that before any US operation may occur in Afghanistan. This lack of prior notice reflects the US’s distrust in the Taliban, such that the uncoordinated assassination of al-Zawahiri may bear consequences for the latter. Although the Taliban issued a statement condemning the US drone strike on Afghani soil, this is not expected to have any lasting effects on the peace agreement. All of this demonstrates the Taliban’s desires to earn international recognition and free up frozen assets abroad, specifically in the US, amidst the internal challenges facing the regime.
On the other hand, the killing will also likely impact its relations with Al-Qaeda and may lead to rising tensions between the two. These tensions will not only be felt by groups within Afghanistan, but also on the different branches and groups around the globe, even if muted or covertly. This will especially be the case if responsibility for al-Zawahiri’s death is put on the Taliban, as they were in charge of providing him and Al-Qaeda with protection and safe shelter. Some in jihadi circles, specifically ISIS, already blame the Taliban and accuse it of surrendering al-Zawahiri to their enemies. Regardless of the Taliban’s direct responsibility in the matter, and currently there is no clear evidence of this, it is possible that a member of the Taliban leaked al-Zawahiri’s residence. This possibility will surely become a matter for investigation within the regime in the weeks to come.
Moreover, it could be said that al-Zawahiri’s assassination may represent a way out for the Taliban to rid itself of US pressure to privately hand over the leader, given his symbolic importance. This incident could also allow them to wash their hands of their commitment to "traditional" protection towards Al-Qaeda in light of their inability to do so in al-Zawahiri’s case. However, given the division among some groups, specifically the Haqqani Network, which by Western estimations is the organization closest to the global jihad project and best fit to provide shelter to Al-Qaeda assets and leaders, this matter will definitely be a case for further study and consideration within the Taliban.
In conclusion, despite his huge symbolic significance to the US, the death of al-Zawahiri opens the door for Al-Qaeda’s retreat or a growth in its future activities. All of this depends on who will succeed al-Zawari in leading the organization in the coming months. Al-Qaeda has limited options on that front, as many of the organization’s influential members whom jihadi circles had agreed upon as potential leaders have already been killed, such as Abu Basir al-Wuhayshi, former leader of Al-Qaeda in Yemen. Among the top contenders for the position is Saif al-Adel, who Western intelligence believes is living in Iran. This candidate may encounter many obstacles to his succession, though, given the escalating conflict between Al-Qaeda and Shiites in several countries. However, the most pressing question for the future of Al-Qaeda is whether or not its central leadership will move outside of Afghanistan, a matter that will become much clearer in the near future.