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Opinion | Ayman al-Zawahri Is Gone, but Al Qaeda Is Resilient

When President Biden introduced the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan final 12 months, considered one of his fundamental justifications was that Al Qaeda had been so “degraded” that the USA now not wanted to take care of a army presence in a rustic as soon as used as a Qaeda sanctuary. Mr. Biden additionally vowed to carry the Taliban to its pledge to not permit terrorists to threaten the USA from Afghan soil.

But lower than a 12 months after the Taliban accomplished their recapture of Afghanistan, the top of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri, was hiding out in a home in downtown Kabul, the place he was killed in an American drone strike on Sunday.

Regardless of 20 years of conflict, tens of 1000’s lifeless and a whole lot of hours of negotiations between American diplomats and the Taliban, together with on the way forward for Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the Taliban felt emboldened. The group apparently had no qualms about internet hosting the terrorist community’s high chief, much as it did in the pre-9/11 era, in a safehouse owned by a high aide to senior Taliban chief Sirajuddin Haqqani.

The Biden administration is portraying al-Zawahri’s killing as a counterterrorism success, papering over its assumption that Afghanistan wouldn’t be a haven for terrorists regardless of the Taliban’s return to energy. Mr. Biden omitted any mention of the Taliban in his speech saying the strike towards 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 energy and leveraged the U.S. withdrawal to position its high chief below Taliban safety within the capital of Afghanistan. For his or her half, the Taliban violated guarantees to not cooperate with terrorist teams and apparently remained dedicated to internet hosting and defending Al Qaeda.

Al-Zawahri had a long-running popularity as somebody who lacked the grand strategic instincts, private story and magnetism of Osama bin Laden. In 2011, John Brennan, then President Barack Obama’s assistant for homeland safety and counterterrorism, described him as “an growing older physician who lacks Bin Laden’s charisma and maybe the loyalty and respect of many in Al Qaeda.”

However a cautious have a look at Al Qaeda over the previous decade reveals that al-Zawahri spearheaded the group’s steady buildup after the U.S. killing of Bin Laden in 2011. He managed to instill within the group the sense that it was a global vanguard, emphasizing unity and political cohesion. That strategy was typically unappealing to youthful potential jihadis who wished to have interaction in additional violence however helped Al Qaeda stabilize itself amid losses in American drone strikes.

Even after essential Qaeda associates in Iraq and Syria defected and have become a vicious competitor within the form of ISIS, al-Zawahri managed to consolidate a formidable community of associates throughout Africa, South Asia and the Center East. He navigated a sophisticated relationship with the Iranian government and, most importantly, preserved Al Qaeda’s strategic relationship with the Taliban. By 2022 he was once more main the group with public messaging and provocations through video and audio releases — and offering strategic route to the group’s associates. Most importantly, based on the U.S. authorities, he was additionally giving guidance from Kabul to his group on concentrating on the USA.

Al Qaeda’s world community will definitely really feel the pinch of al-Zawahri’s loss. The group’s management succession might not be easy, as a result of some of the leaders in line to succeed al-Zawahri had been reportedly in Iran till final 12 months. And as members of a Salafi-jihadist group that’s deeply anti-Shia, their affiliation with a Shia spiritual state like Iran might taint them. However Al Qaeda is more likely to handle the transition; it might even have the ability to leverage al-Zawahri’s so-called martyrdom to emerge as a stronger group.

The brand new chief of Al Qaeda will inherit a extra formidable and harmful group than the one Bin Laden left behind for al-Zawahri. Right now Qaeda associates in East Africa and the Sahel area are on the march, and the Taliban stay protecting of core members of Al Qaeda, as proven by al-Zawahri’s presence in Kabul and different terror teams — just like the Pakistani Taliban — that align with Al Qaeda. The brand new chief might proceed to boast the Taliban’s win in Afghanistan as Al Qaeda’s win — and put the group in an offensive gear, which may result in extra terrorist violence.

The place does this depart the USA? The Biden administration can take some consolation in the truth that it has a workable “over the horizon” army technique for landlocked Afghanistan — combining surveillance, covert companions inside Afghanistan, exact strike capabilities and regional relationships — to find and disrupt threats with out having boots on the bottom.

Nevertheless, there isn’t a escaping the truth that Al Qaeda continues to fester below the Taliban. Which means that the U.S.-Taliban engagement of the previous a number of years has failed. That engagement was predicated on the assumption that the Taliban — which had hosted Bin Laden earlier than Sept. 11, would change their ways, search better relations with the world and forestall Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist safe haven. Al-Zawahri’s sanctuary in Kabul makes clear that America can’t depend on the Taliban’s phrase.

Unsurprisingly, the Taliban see the concentrating on 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 will reply by stepping up assist to Al Qaeda and allied terrorist teams in Afghanistan. (The U.S. authorities says the Taliban has violated tenets of the settlement by internet hosting Al-Zawahri.)

Al-Zawahri’s profitable concentrating on in Kabul doesn’t imply that the risk is now over. If something, it demonstrates that Al Qaeda is resurfacing in Afghanistan and that regardless of sanctions, the Taliban are comfy, safe and enabling threats towards the area and the Western world.

Asfandyar Mir (@asfandyarmir) is a senior professional at the USA Institute of Peace. His analysis is on the worldwide relations of South Asia, U.S. counterterrorism coverage and political violence, with a regional give attention to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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