How Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s death may impact Taliban, Afghanistan

When two US Hellfire missiles slammed into the balcony of a house in downtown Kabul early Sunday morning, killing Ayman Zawahiri, the 71-year-old al-Qaeda leader had become increasingly irrelevant to the organization he once helped shape around the world most dangerous jihadi groups.

Washington had put a $25 million bounty on his head for his role as chief architect of the September 11, 2001 attacks. It continued in a frustratingly long manhunt that, after 21 years of false leads and near misses, focused on a house in the Shirpur district, one of the Afghan capital’s more upscale neighborhoods, about a mile from the former site of the American embassy.

President Biden said Zawahiri’s murder brought justice to “a vicious and determined killer.” But analysts say his death is little more than a symbolic blow to an al-Qaeda that has changed much since he helped orchestrate the strike that killed 2,977 people — the deadliest foreign strike ever on American soil Floor. Instead, the greatest impact of Zawahiri’s death may resonate in Afghanistan, which he dragged into a devastating 20-year war with America and which may now be suffering again from concerns about al Qaeda’s entrenchment in the country and its close ties to the Taliban.

“We shouldn’t downplay the element of justice, but Zawahiri should [at his time of his death] wasn’t the hitter he used to be,” said Talha Abdulrazaq, a researcher at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute. “He was a figurehead, but his reach was very limited.”

Much of this was the result of a relentless, two-decade US campaign to crush al-Qaeda and hunt down its leaders. It managed to win over Osama bin Laden, Zawahiri’s friend and predecessor at the head of Al Qaeda, who was killed in May 2011 when a Navy SEAL team stormed his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

But it also enforced decentralization that resulted in al Qaeda’s main leadership ceding control to more active subsidiaries such as its Yemeni arm, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, operating in the Sahel; and Somalia’s Shabab.

Although the so-called emirs, or commanders, of these groups swore allegiance to Zawahiri, it was unclear how much tactical or strategic influence he had over their operations. And his influence as a jihadist inspiration continued to wane when he failed to rein in the leaders of other former offshoots, including Abu Bakr Baghdadi, whose group, Islamic State, waged a brutal campaign in which they established a so-called caliphate over a third of Syria and Iraq, and at times eclipsing Al Qaeda.

Unlike bin Laden, a charismatic orator whose video performances wowed the group’s supporters worldwide, Zawahiri instead often came across as a ponderous, boring uncle who delivered hour-long sermons that did little to sell him to a new generation of jihadists living there grew to popularize an era of branding and social media.

“A lot of people thought he was already dead. Strategically and operationally, he wasn’t that important to al Qaeda anymore,” said Ashley Jackson, co-director of the Center for the Study of Armed Groups. She added that al Qaeda is more focused on victories in local conflicts by its offshoots than on attacks on the US

The assassination of one of America’s greatest opponents gives Biden a much-needed boost ahead of the midterm elections, but it has also renewed concerns about his administration’s decision last year to pull out of Afghanistan, effectively allowing the Taliban to take over the country. Zawahiri’s killing in Kabul was another troubling indication of Washington’s failure to eradicate al Qaeda from Afghanistan, even after nearly 20 years of occupation.

Since the US withdrawal, al Qaeda had “enjoyed greater freedoms in Afghanistan under Taliban rule,” according to a monitoring group report presented to the UN Security Council in July. Still, al Qaeda was not considered an immediate international threat from a safe haven in Afghanistan, the report said, because the group “lacks no external operational capability and has no current desire to cause international difficulty or embarrassment for the Taliban.” Meanwhile, Zawahiri’s apparently increased comfort and ability to communicate “coincided with the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and the consolidation of the power of key al-Qaeda allies within their de facto government.”

Biden’s decision to withdraw was based on the 2020 Doha Accords that Taliban leaders signed with the Trump administration, which mandated that the Taliban not absorb or join al-Qaeda and other groups that threaten the US or its allies cooperate or allow them to launch attacks from Afghan territory. Biden also insisted at the time that the US could conduct “over-the-horizon” operations (in other words, drone strikes) to deal with any terrorist threat in Afghanistan — a promise he said Monday had fulfilled in Zawahiri- Surgery.

“When I finished our military mission in Afghanistan almost a year ago, I made the decision that after 20 years of war, the United States no longer needed thousands of boots on the ground in Afghanistan to protect America from terrorists who would harm us, ” he said.

“And I have promised the American people that we will continue to conduct effective counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan and beyond. That’s exactly what we did.”

A more thorny question, however, is the extent of the Taliban’s involvement with Zawahiri and what that means for the group’s efforts to gain international legitimacy and restore much-needed Western aid. Afghanistan’s economy has stalled after the US withdrawal with frozen reserves, sanctions, COVID-19 and now the war in Ukraine, driving millions to face a winter without enough food, the UN says.

There is no doubt that the Taliban knew of his presence in the Afghan capital: a senior administration official said that members of the Haqqani network, which has particularly close ties to al Qaeda and is an integral part of the Taliban government, had relatives briefly evacuated from home in Shirpur after strike to hide their presence. The official added that the Taliban’s hospitality to Zawahiri was in violation of the Doha Accords.

The Taliban, meanwhile, said it was the US attack that violated the Doha Accords.

“Such actions are a repetition of the failed experiences of the past 20 years and run counter to the interests of the US, Afghanistan and the region,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a terse statement on Monday. He didn’t mention Zawahiri’s name, but added that “repeating such actions will affect existing opportunities.”

The uproar comes at a delicate time; In late July, Taliban and US delegations met in Tashkent to discuss the release of half of approximately $7 billion in the Afghan central bank’s licensed reserves seized by the US after its withdrawal.

Zawahiri’s attack could strengthen more radical elements within the Taliban leadership, particularly those who disagreed with the deal with the US in the first place, said Hasan Abu Haniyeh, a Jordan-based expert on jihadi groups.

“Some will say that the US is already non-compliant with the deal, that the talk was already problematic because the US does not recognize the Taliban and owns the government funds,” Haniyeh said.

“This view may have long-term consequences.” How Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s death may impact Taliban, Afghanistan

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