For Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s longtime leader, last Saturday probably began like any other. The veteran Egyptian jihadist liked to start the day by reading alone on the balcony of his safehouse in the Sherpur neighborhood of Kabul, Afghanistan. However, unlike previous Saturdays, a CIA drone flying overhead dropped two, small-munition Hellfire missiles, killing al-Zawahiri and closing a long, tragic chapter in America’s fight against al-Qaeda.
The CIA had been tracking al-Zawahiri’s movements since April and established a pattern of life analysis that gave the agency confidence that the man they were tracking in Kabul was indeed the world’s most wanted terrorist. The US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan last August may have lulled the aging al-Qaeda leader into a sense of complacency, leading him to believe he would be safe in Afghanistan’s capital, rather than hiding out along the mountainous terrain of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border where he was previously believed to be hiding.
Al-Zawahiri was a towering figure in the world of global jihad. Jailed in Egypt for four years for connections to the Islamist underground that assassinated Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981, he would go on to lead the militant group Egyptian Islamic Jihad. His partnership with Osama bin Laden, whom he met in Afghanistan during the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s, set the stage for the merger of his group with bin Laden’s, which formally took the name Qaedat al-Jihad, or al-Qaeda, in June 2001. Al-Zawahiri has been implicated in his role in helping to plan the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, and was part of al-Qaeda’s leadership at a time when the group claimed responsibility for numerous terrorist attacks against innocent civilians, including many Muslims.
The main question many are asking now is, what impact will al-Zawahiri’s death have on the future of the organization? Almost immediately, various al-Qaeda-linked factions took to the internet to eulogize their erstwhile leader as a “martyr,” although some detractors criticized him for poor leadership, while Islamic State supporters mocked him as a “puppet.”
When US forces withdrew from Afghanistan last year, President Joe Biden argued that al-Qaeda and its network had been so badly degraded that an American troop presence in the country was no longer necessary. But with limited human intelligence from informant networks on the ground, the United States would mostly be relegated to “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism strikes that combined intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance with armed drones based in the Persian Gulf. In the chaotic aftermath of the withdrawal and evacuation of large numbers of Afghans desperate to flee the country, the Islamic State Khorasan conducted a massive suicide terrorist attack at Kabul airport, killing 170 civilians and 13 US troops. Washington responded with a retaliatory strike intended to kill the mastermind of the attack. Instead, the errant strike killed ten Afghan civilians, including seven children, casting doubt upon “over-the-horizon” as a viable counterterrorism approach.
That al-Zawahiri was tracked down in Kabul caught many by surprise, a seemingly brazen move by an individual who was known for strict adherence to operational security over many years. His presence in the Afghan capital has already reignited a debate in the US national security community about the wisdom of the Biden administration’s troop withdrawal last year.
It also poses some uncomfortable questions for American officials in terms of how to approach the Taliban, now that it is obvious that the group deliberately broke the terms of the Doha agreement, which called for the Taliban to sever relations with transnational terrorist groups, particularly al-Qaeda. Many argue that the United States needs to engage with the Taliban to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. Yet repeated displays of bad faith on the part of the Taliban make it a Faustian bargain that could prove counterproductive in the long run.
The fallout is also likely to further complicate the Taliban’s quest for international recognition and could lead to internal fissures, as the group debates how to respond in the aftermath of recent events. As the Taliban works to determine how the United States learned of Zawahiri’s location, it could lead to accusations of spying, causing splinters to emerge.
What follows will be intense scrutiny of the Taliban’s continued symbiotic relationship with al-Qaeda and other militant groups in the region. Meanwhile, the Taliban remains in a vicious struggle with the Islamic State Khorasan, which is waging a relentless insurgency in parts of eastern Afghanistan. Accordingly, the Taliban needs all the help it can get, including manpower and battlefield experience, just another reason why the group is unlikely to sever ties with al-Qaeda or the Haqqani network, which is now the most influential part of the Taliban organization.
Meanwhile, al-Qaeda will be scrambling to replace al-Zawahiri. Who the group ultimately chooses is a matter of debate within the highest echelons of the US counterterrorism community. The conventional wisdom suggests the elevation of a trusted entity like Saif al-Adl, like al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian with longstanding jihadist credentials and instant name recognition. However, al-Qaeda’s shura or leadership council could also seek to nominate a younger, perhaps lesser-known figure that might be able to inspire a new generation of jihadist recruits. At one point, bin Laden’s son Hamza was believed to fit this profile, although he was killed by a drone strike at some point during the Trump administration.
While al-Zawahiri’s death is unlikely to impact the day-to-day operations of al-Qaeda, it is still a significant loss to the organization. After all, al-Zawahiri took the reins of the group from bin Laden in May 2011 and managed to guide al-Qaeda through a turbulent period that included the Arab Spring uprisings and the rise of the Islamic State beginning in 2014.
The next leader of al-Qaeda, whoever he is, will face the difficult challenge of improving morale, streamlining command-and-control, and recruiting new members that might have otherwise been tempted to join the Islamic State. If al-Qaeda can achieve this, coupled with a return to its safe haven in Afghanistan, there is a high likelihood that it will also be able to rebuild its external attack capabilities.
The zeitgeist in the West is all about great-power competition. The United States is preoccupied with aiding Ukraine in its fight for survival against Russia, while tensions are rising with an assertive China over Taiwan. The fact that the Zawahiri drone strike and the visit of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan happened on overlapping days highlights that while great-power competition is crucial for US national security, so is the continued fight against transnational terrorism.
Still, this isn’t a binary proposition. The United States can and must be able to compete with near-peer competitors while simultaneously pursuing a counterterrorism strategy that prevents the most dangerous threats from metastasizing in failed states and ungoverned regions.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.