On August 1, US President Joe Biden announced the killing of al-Qaeda (AQ) Amir Ayman al-Zawahiri in an airstrike on Kabul on July 30. The US military used Hellfire R9X missiles to execute a “precise tailored airstrike” targeting Zawahiri, who was staying at the upscale Sherpur locality in the Afghan capital. A key conspirator of the 9/11 attacks, he was heading the AQ since a US military raid killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan in May 2011.
Zawahiri’s death is important on several counts.
First, his death underscores the symbiotic relationship between the AQ and the Afghan Taliban. The incident comes when the Taliban is about to complete a year of its Afghanistan takeover on August 15. Last year, the counter-terrorism (CT) community had warned about the country re-emerging as a terror hub, and Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul confirms it. The United Nations’ Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team had repeatedly emphasised the close linkages between the two groups. In its latest report, released in May, the team noted that under the Taliban, Afghanistan had emerged as a safe haven for the AQ as it was having “increased freedom of action”.
Second, Zawahiri’s killing is a setback to the AQ, which was once the ‘numero uno’ of jihadi terrorism. It is not a body blow but an important marker in the overall fragmentation of the group. Zawahiri lacked his predecessor’s charisma. But to his credit, he emerged as the group’s chief propagandist, motivating the cadre. He ensured that the AQ remained a relevant actor (even if confined to the Af-Pak theatre) in the face of the Daesh and Islamic State-Khorasan Province’s spectacular rise in the last decade.
Reportedly, Zawahiri’s likely successor will be Saif al-Adel, a founding member of the AQ and bin Laden’s former security chief, residing for long in Iran, but now reportedly in Afghanistan. Adel was infamously involved in the 1998 US embassy bombings in Africa (Kenya and Tanzania), which were a prevue to the 9/11 attacks. If Adel becomes the next Amir, the possibility of him planning more attacks to maintain the AQ’s relevance remains. However, it will require thorough groundwork utilising the group’s global network, which the US CT actions have debilitated over the last two decades.
Third, this incident highlights the role of the Haqqani Network (HN) in securing Zawahiri’s stay in Kabul. He was reportedly staying at the house owned by a top aide of the Taliban’s Interior Minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani. It is no coincidence that the person in-charge of Kabul’s security is another prominent HN leader, Khalil Ur-Rahman Haqqani, Taliban’s Minister of Refugees. The HN, generally described as the veritable arm of the Pakistan Army’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), would have gone an extra mile in protecting its ‘guest of honour’.
The Pakistani Army engineered this shift of the AQ from the caves of Tora Bora to the affluent neighbourhood of Kabul. Nevertheless, a bigger game is at play here as the continued presence of the AQ in the Af-Pak theatre had become a liability for Pakistan. Rawalpindi may have sacrificed Zawahiri to get out of its current economic mess, secure a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and mend ties with the United States — damaged by former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who continues to allege ‘foreign (read US) conspiracy’ in unseating his government.
Speculation is that the drone used in targeting Zawahiri may have taken off from a base inside Pakistan or a US military base in the Gulf, using Pakistani airspace. This possible US-Pakistan co-operation may also have a bearing on the developments at the Financial Action Task Force, where Pakistan’s continued grey listing has significantly diminished its economic prospects.
India already had concerns over the Taliban sheltering Pakistan-headquartered anti-India terrorist elements on Afghan soil. Zawahiri’s hideout in Kabul reinforces that perception. During his tenure, the AQ sharpened its focus on India by establishing two affiliates — the AQ in the Indian Subcontinent, and the Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind to operate in Kashmir valley. His video messages regularly featured anti-India diatribe. Most recently, in April, Zawahiri had commented on the hijab controversy, urging Muslims to stop being deceived by the “mirage of Hindu democracy”.
In the coming days, the controversy over who may have leaked information on Zawahiri’s location is likely to exacerbate the divisions within the Taliban. But more importantly, it will also determine the contours of Taliban-Pakistan ties, which have already strained over the issue of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan taking shelter in Afghanistan.Sameer Patil is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Views are personal, and do not represent the stand of this publication.