On Tuesday, 2 August, US President Joe Biden announced that the US targeted and killed Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al-Qaeda since the elimination, by the Barack Obama administration, of its founding leader Osama bin Laden in May 2011.
Al-Zawahiri was killed in a US operated drone strike in the Afghani capital Kabul, where he had been residing. In his statement, Biden said Al-Zawahiri’s elimination shows that “no matter how long it takes, no matter where you hide, if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out.”
According to Amal Moukhtar, senior researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, this statement sums up a key objective of the operation. The Biden administration, she said, sought to be credited for reaching the leader of an organisation that used to be a serious security threat to America and its interests.
“Ayman Al-Zawahiri had been seriously ill with an advanced cancer. There had been a lot of speculation over his health conditions for over a year, and statements that were attributed to him in the past year and a half were almost always subject to considerable questioning,” Moukhtar says.
According to Moukhtar, there is “a lot of similarity between the killing of Al-Zawahiri and the killing of Osama bin Laden by the Obama administration because in both cases the [successive Al-Qaeda] leaders were in very poor health, but it was more about an American president wanting credit for eliminating the leader of this terror group.”
Consequently, Moukhtar adds, apart from its political significance for the Biden administration – currently faced with really low approval rates in the US – the elimination of Al-Zawahiri means little for the terror group itself. Al-Zawahiri had been the brain behind Al-Qaeda even under Bin Laden, Moukhtar argues. But during the last two years, with the unmistakable impact of very frail health, Al-Zawahiri and for that matter Al-Qaeda was already working on his succession.
Originally a medical doctor born in 1951 in Cairo and brought up in the upper middle-class neighbourhood of Maadi, Al-Zawahiri is known to be the ideologue and theorist of Al-Qaeda. His path from Maadi to Tora Bora, at the heart of Afghani mountains where Al-Qaeda thrived, started following his association with Islamist militant groups in Egypt, in the wake of the 1967 defeat – one of the key reasons for the rise of Islamism and Islamist militancy in the country and across the Arab world. Al-Zawahiri was used by the late president Anwar Al-Sadat who sent over “volunteers” to fight the Soviet Union during its occupation of Afghanistan in the late 1970s but, on his return to Egypt, Al-Zawahiri was later involved in the killing of Al-Sadat in October 1981. Al-Zawahiri was jailed for an indirect role in the assassination of Al-Sadat, indicted with illegal arms acquisition.
Today Al-Zawahiri’s most likely successor is another Egyptian, Seif Al-Adl, a former army officer, ten years younger, who was involved in the attack Al-Qaeda staged against the US Embassy in Kenya in 1998, one of the worst attacks against US interests prior the tragedy of 9/11.
“We have to wait and see; this is the most likely name but there are other candidates,” Moukhtar says. Al-Qaeda is known for its strict hierarchy. “They work with a very clear system and they have ranks and during the past one and half or two years they will have been considering and preparing for the succession for sure,” she added.
Meanwhile, Moukhtar argues that in addition to ensuring that he goes down in history as the US president who got Al-Qaeda’s second man, Biden is sending a clear message to Taliban who have been running Afghanistan since the incredibly chaotic US withdrawal from the country, months after Biden took office, that he is not in a battle with the current leaders of Afghanistan: “As Biden himself said this was a surgical operation that just targeted Al-Zawahiri without involving the Taliban leaders who gave him refuge in Kabul.”
Despite close to 20 years of heavy military presence in Afghanistan to curb Taliban influence, Moukhtar recalls, the US never put the Taliban on the list of terror groups. Under the former administration of Donald Trump, Washington even negotiated a withdrawal deal with them. Following the killing of Al-Zawahiri, the US and the Taliban exchanged accusations of a breach of the deal, with the US saying that hosting the leader of Al-Qaeda goes against the deal and the Taliban saying it is killing Al-Zawahiri in Kabul that violates it.
Moukhtar feels this will not go too far and it is unlikely that either the Taliban or Al-Qaeda will act to avenge Al-Zawahiri. Targeting US interests in the region, she argued, is no longer easy given the nature of security arrangements around US interests. “They may try to target some interests in Pakistan but again there is a high security alertness there,” she added. After all and despite its otherwise efficient hierarchy system, Moukhtar says, Al-Qaeda will need time to relaunch its operation under a new leadership.
The killing of Al-Zawahiri, Moukhtar says, is challenging for Al-Qaeda at the intellectual level. Unlike IS, Al-Qaeda has not been pursuing a universal Islamist war but was rather focused on the region. Today, she added, IS – which has been at war with Al-Qaeda and for that matter with the Taliban, since they declined to pursue the universal cause of Jihad and preferred to focus on regions and countries – will be celebrating “just as much as Al-Qaeda celebrated the defeat of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt, having criticised the Brotherhood for pursuing the path of politics”. Moreover, Moukhtar says, IS will once again be stressing the need for a more universal collective approach of Islamist militancy.
According to Moukhtar, this pursuit of a collective and universal militancy is an extremely difficult target. The focus of many groups has for years been more local. “We saw that, Noussrat Al-Islam Wal-Muslemine defected from Al-Qaeda to work almost exclusively on Mali and we also saw that Hay’et Tahrir Al-Sham defected from Al-Qaeda to focus on Syria,” she explained.
It is too early to predict the impact of the killing of Al-Zawahiri on any possible further defections or potential mergers, Moukhtar says. The next weeks will be about the ascent of a new leadership and the introduction of its agenda.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.