In a video, Joe Biden announced the death of Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of al-Qaeda. He was killed in an airstrike Sunday morning in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. al-Zawahiri was one of the masterminds of the September 11, 2001 attacks. At the time, he was the second-in-command of the jihadist organization, behind Osama bin Laden. What might al-Zawahiri’s death at this moment mean?
According to information from the US government, the operation was the result of months of intelligence work. The first step was the identification of the terrorist and his family in Kabul, reconstructing their behavior patterns, including “extended periods” on the porch of the residence where he was staying. Models of the residence and evaluation of the best way to achieve it were also made.
The authorization of the evaluated plan came on July 25, with the use of a drone equipped with two Hellfire R9X missiles, a new variant of the weapon produced to hit people. The missile, which has been public knowledge since 2019 only, has no explosive charge, relying on its kinetic force and use of blades to take the target’s life. Finally, on the 30th, the mission was carried out.
Trust the Taliban
Here is the first point of analysis. On the one-year eve of the anniversary of the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, al-Zawahiri was in Kabul for months. And it wasn’t in a remote cave complex or some abandoned house, but he resided in a comfortable home in the center of the capital, close to the presidential palace. Something unimaginable without the explicit support of the Taliban.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the Taliban violated the Doha Agreement by harboring the terrorist. By the Agreement to Bring Peace to Afghanistan, signed in February 2020, the Taliban rejected all cooperation with groups like Al-Qaeda. And, as I’ve been warned several times here in our space, if one thing has been proven in recent history, it’s that the Taliban is not a bona fide actor.
The group repeatedly broke signed agreements and used perfidy during the wars in Afghanistan. Accepting to negotiate with the Taliban and signing the Doha agreement was one of the main foreign policy mistakes of the Donald Trump administration. A “crystal ball” was not necessary, just to note the recent history of the group, whose cooperation with al-Qaeda, in addition to being notorious, was marked by the economic benefits to the Taliban.
Even with al-Zawahiri’s death, the indication now is that the group has returned to a refuge, a physical space from which to operate and reorganize. Who knows, even fighting for the leading role among jihadist groups, as Al-Qaeda has lost ground, especially to Daesh, the so-called Islamic State. Daesh is also a rival to the Taliban.
The next point is what this means for international jihadism. In practice, not much. The doctor al-Zawahiri was a theologian, a symbolic “spiritual” leader, not a combatant or articulator of extremist passions. He wasn’t wealthy like bin Laden either. In fact, in recent years, Al-Qaeda has progressively become more regionalized, with different local groups with autonomy, from the Sahel to Iraq.
The death of the theologian can represent, then, one of two things. Either a new group leadership emerges and re-centralizes Al-Qaeda, thinking about major attacks, or the current model of regional groups operating according to their local contexts is enshrined, making Al-Qaeda a kind of international alliance of groups. assorted jihadists.
Off for Joe Biden
Finally, we have the biggest winner in this whole situation, the Joe Biden administration. Amid record-breaking inflation for the past four decades and an economy in recession after two quarters of shrinkage, Biden will get a “truce” from the news. Inflation will alternate on the news with spectacular graphics retracing the operation, with yet another declaration of “victory” in the War on Terror.
It’s not much different from what its predecessors did. Barack Obama secured his re-election by announcing the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Biden, then vice president, is in the famous photo taken at the White House during the operation. In 2019 it was Trump’s turn to broadcast a speech, this time on the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of Daesh, killed in Syria.
The Biden administration’s victory, however, will not last long. In a few days it will have disappeared from the news and economic problems will resume their leading role. Which is a symptom of another problem. The accumulation of small tactical victories by the US over the last few decades, eliminating its enemies, but strategically, it does not know where to go and cannot establish a long-term policy. Until the next al-Zawahiri.