For some time, Al-Qaeda had stopped being the primary target of policy and counterterrorist experts. The war on terror’s principal adversary since its attacks on the United States on 9/11 had been largely inactive, particularly in Afghanistan. No longer responsible for any incident of violence, let alone a major terrorist attack, it had been replaced by other more powerful entities. Its leader after Osama bin Laden, the Egyptian Ayman Al-Zawahiri, remained at best a symbolic threat limited to jihadist propaganda videos. But his very existence – albeit in the background – remained a constant reminder of US failures in the war on terror; even in Osama bin Laden’s lifetime, Al-Zawahiri had been one of the few Al-Qaeda leaders whose name was synonymous with terrorism.
The fact of Al-Zawahiri’s assassination on 31 July, 2022 in Kabul through a drone strike is not surprising. It not only presents a victorious moment for the US in terms of targeting Al-Qaeda but also gives credence to the idea of the US opting for “over the horizon” operations successfully. It has been noted that this is important for providing succour to President Joe Biden, who was facing much criticism at home, and had very low approval ratings. For the US, the operation can also mean continued stress on ensuring that Afghanistan – with all its instability – does not become a haven for extremists. An interest in what happens in Afghanistan through such a high-profile assassination gives the world an indication that the US remains serious about counterterrorism despite its withdrawal from the country. A counterterrorism approach using drone attacks might well be the policy going forward. But the logistics and other details of the attack – such as who was part of the planning and execution – as well as the timing, require more attention.
After all, 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 claimed that Al-Qaeda had no presence in Afghanistan. The February 2020 agreement had included the condition that the Taliban would not allow any of its members or any 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. The group is already struggling to consolidate power at home and gain recognition and credibility internationally. Although security has improved in the country, the growing presence of transnational terrorist groups like the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) is putting immense pressure on the group. Since the Taliban assumed power in August 2021, there has been a major spike in attacks by the ISKP domestically and against Afghanistan’s neighbours, primarily Pakistan, followed by Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In the case of Pakistan, 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, as has the recent alliance between the ISKP and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM)/the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) which raises serious doubts about the Taliban’s CT assurances, 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.
There is immense pressure on their government to deliver, and perhaps most importantly, ensure that no threats from terrorist groups should emanate from its soil. That Al-Zawahiri was found and killed in Kabul means that this pressure is likely to increase. Indeed, it puts the very willingness and ability of the Taliban to prevent extremism into question. Although regional countries are engaging with the group, there is a sense of frustration among Afghanistan’s neighbours over the Taliban’s inability to deal with terrorist groups. If the Taliban are unable to fulfil their promises of reform, and of delivering on counterterrorism, it will be very difficult for regional countries to engage with them, let alone push for recognition internationally. In fact it may very well lead to disengagement, which the group cannot afford.
It remains to be seen whether the killing of Al-Zawahiri provides some new means of communication between the US and the Taliban, or if it leads to further disengagement. After all, on the one hand, it might offer some leverage to the US in its relationship with the Taliban or, on the other, it could lead to alienation due to allegations of housing extremist groups and completely destroy the possibility of bilateral engagement.
In Pakistan, the incident has led to an energetic debate on Pakistan’s role in this operation, and multiple statements and guesses have been provided. The use of airspace or intelligence support are two of the most important areas in which the Pakistani role has been suggested. Pakistan has officially distanced itself from any role in the operation, and simply made statements condemning terrorism. But some have argued that, given Pakistan’s own troubled ties with the US, its involvement in the attack is plausible. As it is, the interior minister of the country has categorically denied that the drone that killed Al-Zawahiri flew from Pakistani territory. Moreover, it has put into question Islamabad’s relationship with the Taliban, and whether the Taliban can prove to be reliable partners in the ongoing negotiations between Islamabad and the TTP, which have so far not delivered.
While Al-Qaeda has been struggling to remain relevant and the main threat of terrorism comes from IS or its ISKP chapter, some analysts suggest that Al-Qaeda was working with the Taliban to combat the influence of ISKP in Afghanistan. As for what the assassination of Al-Zawahiri means for the group, there are more questions than answers. It could lead to violent reaction from dormant members, or its members could switch allegiance to the IKSP, or the chapter of Al-Qaeda may perhaps finally be well and truly over. In the short term, there is also the question of how this strike – and the changes it begets – will affect Al-Qaeda’s relationship with the Taliban.
While the Taliban have accused Washington of violating the Doha Agreement, the fact that Al-Zawahiri was killed on Afghan soil has without a doubt put the onus on the group to deliver on all fronts. The Taliban don’t seem to realise that if they do not fulfil their commitments, the appetite for engaging with them will diminish.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.