The recent assassination of Al-Qaeda’s Ayman Al-Zawahiri is likely to create a number of ramifications. Al-Zawahiri was assassinated by two Hellfire R9-X missiles from an MQ9 Reaper drone, that had flown over or originated in a third country, in the heart of Kabul, which the US evacuated from in August last year. Al-Zawahiri had a US $25 million bounty upon his head and had been the “invisible” leader of Al-Qaeda since 2011.
Such a hit lent credence to US President Biden’s doctrine of over the horizon counterterrorism in Afghanistan. However, the intelligence team that reported Al-Zawahiri’s whereabouts to the White House, and the consequential decision to take him out with a drone strike, is likely to have unintended consequences for the future direction of Al-Qaeda.
The strike occurred around the time of House of Congress Speak Nancy Pelosi’s provocative trip to Taiwan, the president in isolation after positive tests for Covid-19, and just before a critical vote in the Senate for one of Biden’s signature bills to fund his agenda.
The cynical right-wing media are saying the whereabouts of Al-Zawahiri was long known, and the strike was at a convenient time to bolster Biden’s personal popularity. While the wisdom indicates that tracking down such a high value target as Al-Zawahiri would have taken months, if not years of painstaking intelligence gathering.
Some form of deal is a third option. The Central Bank of Afghanistan received US $40 million as “humanitarian aid” immediately after the assassination. The Pakistani intelligence agency, Inter-Intelligence Services (ISI) was played some role, according to regional reports, particularly if it was the case that the MQ-9 Reaper drone fly over Pakistani territory.
It turns out Al-Zawahiri’s residence was owned by a close advisor to Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of the Haqqani Network, and the current Taliban Interior Minister. The close relationship between the Haqqani Network and ISI strengthens the possibility that there was some US cooperation with ISI.
However, other Afghanistan analysts believe that the assassination had nothing to do with Pakistan’s ISI, as Zawahiri would have been tipped off if ISI knew of the impending attack.
The Taliban Government which formed after the US evacuation of Kabul in August last year, also had elements of Al-Qaeda and groups loyal to the Pakistani ISI within it. With the US out of Afghanistan, the country has returned to much the same situation it was, before the US invasion after 911. US intelligence have been very wary about Afghanistan being used by Al-Qaeda to rebuild their strength for an attack on the US once again.
Although Zawahiri was considered a very uninspiring leader of Al-Qaeda, he had a long history of working with many groups across the Arabian Peninsula and even in Iran. Zawahiri merged his Egyptian Islamic Group (EIJ) with Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda prior to 911. Al-Qaeda had a relationship with the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the Lebanese Hezbollah.
Zawahiri was patient during the reign of Islamic State during the Caliphate period, and kept Al-Qaeda separate. This was consistent with Zawahiri’s belief that any caliphate could not be imposed “top-down”, but had to be built from the grassroots. Only with this strong grassroot base, could Al-Qaeda reinstate attacks on the “infidel West.” Zawahiri saw that Islamic State would be attacked by the West and destroyed.
Zawahiri was content to work on the grassroot fundamentals before taking Al-Qaeda back towards international jihad. The only foreign attack supported by Al-Qaeda was the terrorist attack on a Pensacola Army base within the United States in 2019.
The danger of a post Zawahiri Al-Qaeda is that the organization may drift much closer to Iran. Al-Qaeda and Iran have a long cooperative relationship. This is very much based on the premise that an enemy of my enemy is a friend, where mutual hatred of the “west” is the common bond.
Zawahiri’s former deputy before Sayf Al-Adl, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, was assassinated by the Israelis in Tehran back in 2020. Many of Al-Qaeda’s present leadership has long had refuge in Iran, believed to be relatively safe from US drones. Its very probable that Al-Adl, the current number two in Al-Qaeda will take Zawahiri’s place. Al-Adl is domiciled in Iran and works very closely with the clerics. Al-Adl had a long active career within the Egyptian military, and organized the May 2003 bombings in Riyadh from Iran.
According to Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark’s 2017 book “The Exile”, Al-Qaeda has been working on a dirty-bomb for future attacks on the US, Israel, and other potential targets.
With Al-Adl in charge of Al-Qaeda in collaboration with Iran, there are possibilities the group will return to international terror attacks more frequently. Al-Qaeda within Iran, has state backing and resources they didn’t have before.
Although Zawahiri’s death will have little or no effect on current Al-Qaeda activities, a new leader with a jihadist void left with the decline of Islamic State provides opportunity. The Taliban in Afghanistan may be quietly happy the centre of Al-Qaeda may shift across to Iran, this will be Iran’s gain with an organization willing to attack its enemies.
This is not without its problems for Al-Qaeda. If Al-Qaeda strengthens their position in Iran, many Sunni groups across the Arabian Peninsula may lose trust in Al-Qaeda. This is an extremely important issue for Al-Qaeda to factor in when appointing the successor to Zawahiri. In addition, if Al-Adl becomes the next Al-Qaeda leader, there are very strong probabilities Israel would not stand idly by.
The Biden action to assassinate Zawahiri was engaged upon with the hope that it would raise his domestic popularity. It wasn’t an Osama Bin Laden moment that Obama received some years earlier. Americans have seemed to have moved on from 911.
However, what the Zawahiri assassination has done is to destabilize Al-Qaeda, forcing the organization to consider their future jihadist role. The future direction of Al-Qaeda will be dependent upon who the new leader will be.