Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Killing
Date: August 15, 2022
Jinnah Institute reached out to policy experts to solicit their views on the killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri in a US drone strike, and the future of Al-Qaeda following these developments.
Experts were also asked to shed light on the implications it will have on Pakistan and the US’ strategy vis a vis Taliban.
Amb. Zamir Akram
Former PR to UN
With the ongoing Ukraine war and growing tensions over Taiwan, American strategy is focused on Russia and China, rather than the Taliban. The only US interest is counterterrorism, underscored by Zawahiri’s elimination. This may also revive President Biden’s popularity and partially compensate for the humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan, perhaps enhancing his party’s fortunes in forthcoming Congressional elections. This may explain the timing of the strike. Despite denials, the air corridor for the drone flight was likely through Pakistan, this may further complicate Pakistan-Taliban relations while any improvement in relations with the US would be marginal. Zawahiri’s killing will further degrade Al-Qaeda with a leadership vacuum and defections to ISIS which will become an even more potent terrorist threat.
Assistant Professor of Political Science, TUFTS University
The killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri by U.S. drone strike this past week brings into relief several noteworthy observations. Firstly, the strike seriously damages the credibility of the IEA’s claims of having severed ties with Al-Qaeda. This is likely to further delay prospects of international recognition and frustrate regional and international efforts to service the humanitarian crisis on the ground. Secondly, the strike raises thorny questions about the extent to which Al-Qaeda and its militant offshoots (including the TTP) will continue to rely on the Taliban and Haqqani affiliates for protection, given the now clearly demonstrated reach of U.S. over-the-horizon operations. Indeed, if al-Zawahiri could be taken out with relative ease, then the ability of militants of other hues (read: TTP and BLA) to operate freely in Afghanistan will certainly raise eyebrows henceforth. Thirdly, the strike’s planning and execution raises equally intriguing questions about the extent to which the mission’s success benefited from joint intelligence sharing and communication between Pakistan and the United States. Pak-U.S. counterterror cooperation has, for the most part, been relatively insulated from the bilateral relationship’s complicated pathology, and there have been some signs in recent months of a gradual thaw in ties, which would be a good thing as far as efforts geared towards regional stabilisation are concerned. But this could also, paradoxically, jaundice the view from Kabul, especially if last week’s strike provides fodder to hardliners within the IEA’s ranks. Indeed, with the killing of al-Zawahiri, the U.S. has effectively kicked the ball back into the IEA’s court. The coming weeks and months will reveal what decisions, if any, the emirate takes vis-à-vis militant actors, and by extension, the potential dangers they present to Afghanistan’s neighbors.
Global Fellow, Willson Center
The Afghan Taliban has denied knowledge of Zawahiri’s presence in Afghanistan and instead lashed out against the U.S. for violating the Doha pact. These tactics cannot mask the group’s vulnerabilities, as Zawahiri’s killing heralds further fragmentation of Afghanistan’s complex militant landscape. Differences of opinion among the Taliban and Haqqani group about allegiance to al-Qaeda, responses to the US strike, and need to appease the international community will sow divisions. The nomination of a new al-Qaeda leader may spark defections. ISKP will rally its efforts to win over disgruntled Taliban and leaderless al-Qaeda fighters through more dramatic attacks in Kabul, further eroding the Taliban government’s legitimacy.
All this bodes poorly for Pakistan and the ongoing talks with the TTP. Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul is a reminder that militant groups are ideologically driven and will maintain networks with allied groups irrespective of changing political circumstances. A weaker Taliban will not want to alienate the TTP, and the appointment of a new al-Qaeda leader will provide an occasion for militant groups to revive allegiances. This sets the stage for an emboldened and well-supported TTP holding firm to its demands in negotiations with Pakistan’s government and security forces, who will be warily eyeing the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and growing likelihood of cross-border militancy.
Director (CAMEA) Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad
Al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was at best a symbolic threat, largely limited to propaganda jihadist videos, but whose existence remained a constant reminder of the U.S. failure in the war on terror. Zawahiri’s killing provides much needed succor to President Joe Biden’s approval ratings at home, and gives some credence to U.S.’ over-the-horizon operations. The incident may also suggest U.S. interest in counterterrorism in Afghanistan, despite its withdrawal last year, and preventing Afghanistan from becoming a haven for extremists again. A counterterrorism approach through drone attacks may well be the policy going forward, but the logistics and other details of the attack – including planning and execution – require more attention.
The US and Afghanistan are attempting to rebuild a broken relationship. As part of the Doha agreement between the US and the Taliban, the latter had agreed not to host or abet terrorist groups, and had claimed that Al-Qaeda did not have a presence in Afghanistan. The February 2020 agreement had included the condition that the Taliban “will not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including Al-Qaeda, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.” The US had also departed the country on the pretext that Al-Qaeda had been defeated. For the Taliban, this presents a very complex situation: that Zawahiri was found and killed in Kabul means that the willingness and ability of the Taliban to prevent extremism is debatable; and if the IEA is unable to fulfill promises of reform, including delivering on counterterrorism, it will be very difficult for regional countries to engage with them, let alone push for recognition internationally.
Since the Taliban assumed power in August 2021, there has been a major spike in attacks by the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) domestically and against Afghanistan’s neighbours, primarily Pakistan, followed by Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In Pakistan’s case, the rise in Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) activity and attacks against Pakistani security personnel independently as well as in collaboration with the ISKP has been of particular concern, which raises serious doubts on the Taliban’s CT assurances and their ability and willingness to deal with transnational terrorist groups operating within the country. For Pakistan, this remains a major issue, as a reliable Taliban government will go a long way to ensure stability and peace in the region.