After the elimination of Ayman al-Zawahiri, does Al-Qaeda still represent a threat?

The American government has just announced that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al-Qaeda and mastermind of the attacks of September 11, 2001, has been killed by a drone in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.

Al-Zawahiri was Osama bin Laden's successor. His death allows the families of those killed in the 2001 attacks to "turn the page", President of the United States Joe Biden said during a televised address the 1er August 2022.

This targeted assassination took place nearly a year after US troops left Afghanistan after decades of fighting in this country. What will be the impact of the elimination of the leader of Al-Qaeda, and what does this operation say about the fight against terrorism led by the United States in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime? The Conversation asked Daniel Milton, a terrorism expert at the United States Military Academy at West Point, and Haroro J. Ingram et Andrew Mines, research fellows at George Washington University's Program on Extremism, to provide the first elements of an answer to these questions.

Who was Ayman al-Zawahiri?

Ayman al-Zawahiri, born in 1951 in Egypt, became the main leader of al-Qaeda in 2011 after the elimination of his predecessor, Osama bin Laden, in a summer of american operation.

In the years preceding bin Laden's death, many al-Qaeda leaders had been killed by US drone strikes in Pakistan, and bin Laden had encountered more and more difficulties to exercise real control over the global network that his organization had become.

In 2011, Al-Zawahiri succeeded bin Laden despite a mixed reputation. Although he had been involved in the jihadist struggle for a long time, he was considered by many observers and, also, by some jihadists as a soporific orator without formal religious qualifications or battlefield experience.

Significantly less charismatic than his predecessor, Al-Zawahiri was known for his tendency to to launch into long sinuous speeches and often archaic. He also struggled to shake off rumors that he was a informant Egyptian authorities during his stay in prison in his country of origin (1981-1984) and, as journalist Lawrence Wright explained, he complicated relations between the young Bin Laden and his mentor, Abdullah Azzam.

Al-Zawahiri's influence was further weakened by the Arab Spring that swept across North Africa and the Middle East : Al-Qaeda then appeared disconnected from events and incapable of effectively exploiting the outbreak of war in Syria and Iraq. For analysts as for its jihadists, Al-Zawahiri appeared as the symbol of an al-Qaeda outdated and quickly eclipsed by other groups it had once helped establish itself on the world stage, including the Islamic State.

Who was Ayman Al-Zawahiri, leader of Al-Qaeda? • France 24, August 2, 2022.

But with the collapse of the Islamic State group's caliphate in 2019, the return to power in Afghanistan of the Taliban, allies of Al-Qaeda, and the persistence of Al-Qaeda subsidiaries especially in Africa, some experts affirm that Al-Zawahiri guided al-Qaeda through its most difficult period and that the group remains a powerful threat. A senior Biden administration official told The Associated Press that at the time of his death, Al-Zawahiri continued to exercise "strategic leadership" and was considered a dangerous figure.

Where does his death leave Al-Qaeda?

The assassination or capture of key terrorist leaders has been a key tool in the fight against terrorism for decades. These operations make it possible to withdraw the terrorist leaders from the battlefield and to provoke the succession struggles that disrupt group cohesion and can expose its security vulnerabilities. Unlike the Islamic State, whose leadership succession practices are clear and have been implemented four times since the death of its founder Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi in 2006, those of Al-Qaeda are rather opaque. Al-Zawahiri's successor will only be the movement's third leader since its creation in 1988.

Le main suitor is another Egyptian. A former colonel in the Egyptian army and, like Al-Zawahiri, a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, affiliated with Al-Qaeda, Saif al-Adel is linked to the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, which made al-Qaeda a global jihadist threat. His reputation as an explosives expert and military strategist earned him real popularity within the Al-Qaeda movement. However, a number of other possibilities lurk behind Al-Adel: a recent United Nations Security Council report identifies several possible successors.

Be that as it may, Al-Qaeda is today at a crossroads. If al-Zawahiri's successor is widely recognized as legitimate by both al-Qaeda's hard core and its affiliates, he could help stabilize the movement. But any ambiguity over al-Qaeda's succession plan could lead to the new leader's authority being questioned, which could further fracture the movement.

There is every reason to believe that Al-Qaeda as a global movement will survive Al-Zawahiri's death, just as it survived Bin Laden's. The network has had a number of recent successes. The Taliban, its longtime allies, managed to take control of Afghanistan with the help ofAl-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent – a subsidiary that is currently expanding its operations in Pakistan and India. Meanwhile, affiliated groups on the African continent – ​​from Mali and the Lake Chad region to Somalia – remain a threat, with some expanding beyond their traditional areas of operations.

Other affiliated groups, such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, remain loyal to the hard core and, according to the UN monitoring team, are eager to renew attacks abroad against the United States. United and their allies.

Al-Zawahiri's successor will seek to retain the allegiance of Al-Qaeda affiliates so that it continues to pose a real threat.

What does this elimination tell us about US operations in Afghanistan under the Taliban?

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 raised questions about the ability of the United States to maintain pressure on al-Qaeda, Islamic State in Khorassan and the other jihadists present in the country.

US officials have explained that an over-the-horizon strategy—initiating surgical strikes and special operations raids from outside a given state—would allow the United States to respond to challenges such as preparations for terrorist attacks and the resurgence of armed groups.

But many experts are not of this opinion. And when a american drone strike error killed seven children, a US-employed aid worker and other civilians last fall, this strategy has come under scrutiny.

But to those who doubted that the United States still had the will to tackle the main terrorists in Afghanistan, the assassination of Al-Zawahiri provides a clear answer. This strike would have involved long-term monitoring of the al-Qaeda leader and his family, and extensive discussions within the US government before receiving presidential approval. Joe Biden claims that the elimination of Al-Zawahiri did not cause other victims.

It should be noted, however, that it took eleven months for the United States to strike its first high-value target in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. This contrasts with the hundreds of airstrikes made in the years leading up to the US withdrawal of August 2021.

The strike took place in a district of Kabul where many senior Taliban leaders reside. The hideout itself belonged to a high-ranking associate of Sirajuddin Haqqani, a terrorist wanted by the United States and a senior Taliban leader.

Giving aid to Al-Zawahiri constituted a violation of thedoha agreement of 2020, under which the Taliban had agreed “not to cooperate with groups or individuals threatening the security of the United States and its allies”. The circumstances of the attack suggest that if the United States is to conduct effective operations "beyond the horizon" in Afghanistan, it will can't count on Taliban support.

The elimination of Al-Zawahiri also does not tell us whether the American strategy after the withdrawal can contain other jihadist groups in the region, such as the Islamic State in Khorassan, which is fiercely opposed to the Taliban and to their expansion in Afghanistan.

Indeed, if more jihadists perceive the Taliban to be too weak to protect key leaders of al-Qaeda and its affiliates, while unable to govern Afghanistan without US assistance, many of them might see the Islamic State in Khorassan as the best choice.

These and other dynamics illustrate the many challenges of pursuing counterterrorism in Afghanistan today – challenges that are unlikely to be resolved by occasional high-profile drone strikes and assassinations.

Haroro J. Ingram, Senior Research Fellow at the Program on Extremism, George Washington University; Andrew Mines, Research Fellow at the Program on Extremism, George Washington University et Daniel Milton, Director of Research, United States Military Academy West Point

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image credit: Creative Commons / QuotePark

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