Americans who have never heard of Ayman al-Zawahiri or have long forgotten his name may now wonder what his death means for the struggle against terrorism. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) killed the 71-year-old al Qaeda leader last week in a drone strike against his Kabul safe house. Widely seen as a victory for justice, the killing sends a clear message to Afghanistan — but it will have only a minor impact on the struggle against terrorism.
Ayman al-Zawahiri was an Egyptian medical doctor and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an ideological precursor to al Qaeda, and later Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Although he did not participate in the plot, the security services arrested al-Zawahiri as part of their crackdown following the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981. They tortured him in prison, which left him imbittered and contributed to his radicalization.
After being released from prison in 1984, al-Zawahiri journeyed to Peshawar, Pakistan, where he met Osama bin Laden. The precise nature of their interaction and al-Zawahiri’s activities during the next decade remain unclear. Bin Laden founded al Qaeda in 1988, and by 1991, al-Zawahiri had assumed leadership of Islamic Jihad. In 1998, the two leaders living in Afghanistan under Taliban protection merged their groups.
Although content to let bin Laden be the voice and face of the organization, al-Zawahiri was its brain. According to former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel’s “Search for Al-Qaeda,” al-Zawahiri convinced bin Laden of the need for a global jihad. He may have written the infamous 1998 fatwa to “kill Americans and their allies—civilian and military.” In 2001, he published a brief memoir, “Knights Under the Profits Banner,” which articulates the jihadist ideology. Many analysists considered him to be the real mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. He took o-ver leadership of the organization when Seal Team 6 killed bin Laden in 2011.
While the families of the 9/11 victims along with most Americans view the killing of al-Zawahiri as just retribution for that attack and his other crimes, it will not reduce the terrorist threat. Al Qaeda yielded primacy of place in the global jihad to the Islamic State in Syria in Iraq (ISIS) in 2014. The United States and its allies have severely degraded both organizations.
The February 2022 Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Communityissued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence concluded that al Qaeda has “devolved operational responsibility to regional affiliates as it has shifted away from centrally directed plotting.” That conclusion suggests that al-Zawahiri’s return to Kabul may have been little more than a victorious homecoming. The report concluded that the greatest threat came from its affiliates in Yemen, Somalia and West Africa, which may attack U.S. interests but probably cannot strike the American homeland.
The primary threat today comes not from groups but from lone wolves, individuals motivated by extremist ideology but unaffiliated with any group. Lone wolves acting on behalf of jihadist ideology have conducted attacks in the United States and Europe over the past decade. On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen murdered 49 people at the Pulse Night Club in Orlando, Florida, swearing allegiance to ISIS during the attack. One month later, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel drove a truck through a crowd of people celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, France, killing 86. Like Mateen, he had no known affiliation with any extremist groups, although ISIS claimed he acted on its call to kill infidels.
These and other incidents suggest that the center of gravity in combating terrorism is not groups and organizations but the ideology that motivates them. As long as the jihadist worldview persists, decapitation strikes like the ones that killed bin Laden and al-Zawahiri will have little effect. Kill one terrorist leader and another will take his place. Such operations, along with disrupting networks and attacking terrorist finances, remain important because they reduce the likelihood of another 9/11. However, drone strikes cannot prevent smaller-scale attacks.
Although the killing of al-Zawahiri will have negligible effect on the global jihad, it has other important results. It reminds our enemies that the United States has a long memory and a long reach. It also lets the Taliban know that it will pay a price for harboring terrorists.
The drone strike demonstrates that an over-the-horizon strategy can produce results. It allows the United States to strike terrorists without putting the lives of American service personnel at risk. President Biden vowed to do just that after withdrawing the last U.S. troops from Afghanistan a year ago.
Use of such precision weapons without collateral damage requires precise intelligence on the target. In the case of al-Zawahiri, the intelligence was so precise that the CIA not only located the safe house in which he was hiding, it determined that he read on its balcony early each morning. That information allowed them to fire two low-yield Hellfire missiles, killing him without harming anyone else. The CIA still has eyes and ears on the ground in Afghanistan.
The Taliban government has denied knowing of al-Zawahiri’s presences in the country. There may be an element of truth in that assertion. The Taliban is a coalition, not a unified movement. The militant Haqqani Network, one of whose members Sirajuddin Haqqani is the interior minister, smuggled al-Zawahiri into the country, possibly without the knowledge of other government officials. The former U.S. representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, has suggested that members of the Taliban may even have provided the United States with the intelligence that allowed them to target al-Zawahiri.
Drones will, however, remain controversial. Critics describe their use as extra-judicial killing, since we are not in a declared war. They point to the deaths of 10 people, including seven children, in a strike last August aimed at a man mistakenly identified as a terrorist. However, the 1998 fatwa issued by bin Laden and al-Zawahiri has been widely interpreted as a declaration of war against the United States. Also, the intelligence, not the weapon, was faulty.
Civilians have always died in conflicts, and conventional aircraft cause more casualties by far than drones. Given the persistence of the Islamist threat, more strikes like the one that killed al-Zawahiri are bound to occur.