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New Atlanticist August 1, 2022

Experts react: Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri is dead. What’s next for US counterterrorism?

By Atlantic Council experts

With an early Sunday morning drone strike in downtown Kabul, the United States killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, one of the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks and the leader of the al-Qaeda terrorist network since the 2011 death of Osama bin Laden. “No matter how long it takes, no matter where you hide, if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out,” said US President Joe Biden, announcing the operation at the White House on Monday night.

For answers about what this strike means for al-Qaeda, the US approach to counterterrorism, and Afghanistan’s future, we turned to experts across our network of Atlantic Council fellows and members of our Counterterrorism Study Group. This post will be updated with fresh analysis as this story develops and our expert reactions roll in.

William F. Wechsler: A sense of vindication for Biden and a moment of truth for the Taliban

Christopher P. Costa: To build on the success of the Zawahiri strike, expand spy networks in Afghanistan 

Nathan Sales: Three critical counterterrorism concerns raised by the strike

Norman Roule: What to expect next from a withered al-Qaeda

Thomas S. Warrick: Beware premature lessons from Sunday’s success

Javed Ali: Counterterrorism operations have dealt a big blow to the original al-Qaeda—but not all affiliates

Mike Nagata: A bittersweet triumph

Christopher K. Harnisch: Terrorists should take note: The US remains undeterred

Marc Polymeropoulos: ‘This is an incredibly personal moment’

Seth Stodder: Zawahiri’s killing raises more questions than it resolves

Bernard Hudson: Zawahiri’s last moments were spent only blocks from the former US Embassy in Afghanistan

A sense of vindication for Biden and a moment of truth for the Taliban

The death of Ayman al-Zawahiri is a triumph first and foremost for the thousands of professionals in the US special operations and intelligence communities whose quiet, steadfast work over the last two decades culminated in today’s news. It appears that the strike was taken in such a way as to finish the target without inflicting any collateral damage, a factor that was critical for President Biden and an example of tactical expertise that is matched by no other country today.

While strikes against high-value targets are generally not a substitute for comprehensive counter-network operations, exceptions to that rule are made for the highest of high-value targets, and such strikes merit presidential announcements. So it was fitting that President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden, President Trump announced the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and now President Biden has announced the death of Zawahiri, a man who like the others has the blood of untold innocents on his hands.  

While he was not an operational leader like bin Laden, Zawahiri provided strategic guidance to the widely dispersed al-Qaeda network of organizations—consistently urging them to attack the US homeland—and he was one of the few remaining people who could serve as the “glue” to hold the network together. Now that he is dead we should expect al-Qaeda to go through a period of internal tumult that will serve the US strategic objective of fracturing the organization.  

This is a particularly notable accomplishment for President Biden, who decided to withdraw remaining US forces and leave Afghanistan to the Taliban, relying only on “over the horizon” counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda. This decision was criticized by many counterterrorism experts at the time, myself included. But with today’s news, Biden and his team, ably led by Liz Sherwood-Randall at the White House, will go to sleep tonight with a deep sense of vindication and take a well-deserved victory lap.

The leaders of the Taliban, however, should not sleep so soundly. Senior Biden administration officials have made clear that senior leaders in the Haqqani network—a US-designated terrorist group and a key element of the Taliban—supported Zawahiri’s move to Kabul and helped spirit away his family after the strike. It appears unclear at the moment whether other Taliban leaders were similarly intimately involved in providing sanctuary to the leader of al-Qaeda in their capital. If they did provide sanctuary, then the commitments they signed in Doha were meaningless. If they didn’t, then they should take action against the Haqqanis. In either case, the Taliban suddenly now has a lot more to prove to the outside world. A good place to start would be to hand over Mark Frerichs, the innocent American hostage taken by the Haqqanis over two years ago.  

—William F. Wechsler is the director of the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs and a former US deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combatting terrorism

To build on the success of the Zawahiri strike, expand spy networks in Afghanistan 

The Biden administration’s counterterrorism enterprise notched a significant success with the targeting and killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s spiritual leader, in a drone strike in Afghanistan.

But the US government’s next counterterrorism steps should build on this success. The United States must reinvest in and redouble new ways of developing human intelligence in order to counter resurgent jihadists in Afghanistan. Importantly, that is precisely what the United States is signaling it might do next. And it’s what is necessary, given worries of a rising jihadist threat left behind to metastasize in Afghanistan—notwithstanding the death of Zawahiri.   

It’s worth recalling that when the Trump administration’s Afghanistan strategy was unveiled in August 2017, it reflected an approach that was very much seen through a counterterrorism lens. The key theme for counterterrorism options at the time necessitated a strategic framework to protect the US homeland by attacking terrorist groups like al-Qaeda in their safe havens. In policy circles, it was viewed as an article of faith that the overarching driver of US counterterrorism policy was preventing mass terror attacks against Americans prior to the emergence of those attacks.

While the Biden administration should be rightfully pleased with its drone strike, a key policy option for the United States opportunistically springs from an ongoing shadow war playing out in the backdrop of this successful strike. There are anti-Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan where mujahideen fighters known as the National Resistance Front (NRF) are based. These opposition fighters are combating the Taliban. The United States must throw its weight behind a partnership with insurgents like the NRF because the Taliban cannot be trusted, and the United States is going to need to increase its intelligence-collection capabilities in Afghanistan. Without US troops on the ground to collect human intelligence, the operation against Zawahiri validated that an “over the horizon capability” can be effective. But a long-term intelligence partnership with anti-Taliban insurgents like the NRF is an additional insurance policy.

The United States cannot rest even with the success of this drone strike, but must instead be relentless in its pursuit of intelligence that can provide insights on al-Qaeda safe havens— like Zawahiri’s sanctuary in Kabul.

—Christopher P. Costa is the executive director of the International Spy Museum and an adjunct associate professor with Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He is a former career intelligence officer, and was special assistant to the president and senior director for counterterrorism at the US National Security Council from 2017 to 2018.

Three critical counterterrorism concerns raised by the strike

​​The killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri is a huge blow for al-Qaeda, which has spent the past year working to rebuild its capabilities in Afghanistan after the chaotic US withdrawal. Zawahiri may not have been as charismatic a leader as his predecessor Osama bin Laden or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of ISIS. But the fact that he has now met the same fate will demoralize al-Qaeda’s rank and file, demonstrating that no terrorist is beyond the United States’ reach.

While this is a day to celebrate, Zawahiri’s death raises a number of critical questions about the future of American counterterrorism.

First, Zawahiri’s presence in post-withdrawal Afghanistan suggests that, as feared, the Taliban is once more granting safe haven to the leaders of al-Qaeda—a group with which it has never broken. Zawahiri was living in a safe house in the heart of Kabul, which only happens with the Taliban’s approval.

Second, it’s not clear if Sunday’s success can be replicated against other terrorist targets. This was the first US drone strike in Afghanistan in almost a year, and it remains to be seen whether the administration has the capability or intent to systematically dismantle the terror networks in the country that threaten us. Until we know more, we should resist the urge to see the strike as a vindication of “over the horizon” counterterrorism.

Third, the next man on al Qaeda’s depth chart is Saif al-Adel—who has long been a guest of the Iranian regime. Tehran and al-Qaeda have made common cause against their shared enemies in recent years. We’ll need to keep a close eye on what their relationship looks like if, as expected, Saif ascends to al-Qaeda’s top role.

Nathan Sales is a nonresident senior fellow with the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative and Middle East Programs and a former US ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism

What to expect next from a withered al-Qaeda

The killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is an important national success. We all owe a debt of thanks to those who brought this terrorist to justice. 

In the twenty years in which Zawahiri fled justice, al-Qaeda withered. It is no longer capable of global influence and its offshoots now focus on country-specific or regional domination, much as we see in Africa or Yemen. 

Zawahiri’s death raises important questions: Was his killing the result of the decades-long search for him? Was he betrayed by Taliban officials seeking the reward for such information or US support for the return of frozen Afghan assets? Did Zawahiri authorize operations that created ripples that allowed his location to become known? Initial reporting also puts his killing in Kabul. How long had he been there, and who was with him when he died? What does this operation tell us about US drone capabilities? Some of these answers will never be known to the public. 

Zawahiri’s longtime presence in Afghanistan underscores the need to maintain robust intelligence coverage of that broken country and similar environments, and we should be careful about overstating over-the-horizon capabilities. 

Regarding what happens next, the mantle of al-Qaeda’s leadership may fall on Saif al-Adel, who is reportedly in loose custody in Iran. Tehran’s refusal to turn over al-Qaeda operatives to international authorities—and indeed to allow al-Qaeda to maintain a facilitation cell within Iran—underscores that Iran remains the world’s leading sponsor and enabler of terrorism.

—Norman Roule is a former national intelligence manager for Iran in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence

Beware premature lessons from Sunday’s success

Sunday’s successful strike, which ended Ayman al-Zawahiri’s leadership of al-Qaeda, is a welcome success. But both officials and the public need to be careful not to leap too far in drawing conclusions about what’s needed to secure the American people from future terrorist threats. Sunday’s success was the result of twenty-plus years of hard work, much of it necessarily done in the shadows, compartmentalized, in the strictest secrecy. But as with the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden—also planned and carried out in the strictest secrecy—the details will soon come out, and we should wait until more is known before drawing the truly important and lasting lessons from Sunday’s strike.

Even people inside government benefit from waiting until details emerge on the ground after a successful strike. We have learned this lesson many times over, at a cost to US credibility that should be avoided this time and in the future.

Thus, we should be cautious about making lasting judgments about whether this strike vindicates “over the horizon” counterterrorism efforts, or proves Taliban perfidy, or determines whether anything will ever satisfy President Biden’s conservative critics. Lessons learned will be possible, but in weeks, not hours.

One conclusion we can safely make now: It is dangerous to believe that the death of Zawahiri ends the threat of terrorism. The death of bin Laden gave many Americans the sense that the war on terror had been won. The death of Zawahiri will confirm this view to many. Both judgments are wrong. We cannot relax our vigilance. Today’s most dangerous al-Qaeda franchise is al-Shabaab in Somalia, far from where Zawahiri was living in Afghanistan. Their plots, we can predict, will continue uninterrupted by Sunday’s successful strike.

—Thomas S. Warrick is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, director of the Future of DHS Project, and co-director of the Future of Counterterrorism Project. He is also a former deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism policy at the US Department of Homeland Security.

Counterterrorism operations have dealt a big blow to the original al-Qaeda—but not all affiliates

President Biden’s remarks about the US operation to kill former al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri marks another significant blow against the group that was responsible for the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 and others before and after that killed and injured thousands of innocent civilians.  

Zawahiri had been the deputy of the original al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, for almost fifteen years prior to bin Laden’s death in 2011. Now, more than a decade after bin Laden’s death, Zawahiri has finally been removed as the leader of the group. Other counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda figures over the past twenty years have significantly damaged the group’s ability to maintain a robust collection of senior figures who could lead it into the future, and it is unknown who will emerge as that new person.  

Al-Qaeda also lost its status as the leading group in the global jihadist movement with the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in the mid-2010s, although there are still five groups scattered across the world in Syria, Yemen, Africa, and South Asia that consider themselves al-Qaeda affiliates and have varying degrees of capability or intentions to launch attacks against Western or US interests locally.

In summary, Zawahiri’s death probably signals a new and perhaps final chapter for what remains of the legacy al-Qaida that started in Afghanistan in the late 1980s. But his death also does not eliminate the threat overall from al-Qaeda’s affiliated groups abroad. 

—Javed Ali is a former senior director for counterterrorism at the US National Security Council and an associate professor of practice at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy

A bittersweet triumph

The killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri arouses a welter of thoughts, emotions, and memories, just as the demise of Osama bin Laden did over a decade ago. Yet for those who have served in the counterterrorism community, and those who serve today, these sentiments are tinged by this descriptor: “bittersweet.” We should certainly savor this operational triumph and relish the fulfillment of our pledge to bring him to justice, but it should not—and cannot—be unblemished satisfaction.

First of all, it is no secret that the most powerful nation on earth has been hunting for Zawahiri since well before 9/11 and for varied reasons, such as his complicity in the USS Cole bombing. The mere fact that it has taken so long for the United States to successfully end his terrorist career should give us pause.

Second, if the reports that Zawahiri was killed while living inside the Afghan capital of Kabul are accurate, our ability to savor this operational success is at least partially diminished by the confirmation that the United States’ chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan restored significant freedom of action to him and al-Qaeda—the terrorist group we went there to destroy.

Third, as welcome as the removal of another al-Qaeda leader may be, it cannot mask the strategic reality that al-Qaeda has nonetheless been able to expand and metastasize globally despite our best efforts. Today, it operates dangerous, and in many cases growing, franchises and networks across South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Zawahiri’s death does little to change that.

Zawahiri’s demise is worth celebrating. It reflects well on the skill, dedication, professionalism, and heroism of those who serve our nation. And it delivers another measure of justice to the victims of his terrorist movement. But the war is far from over.

—Mike Nagata (US Army LTG Ret.) is a former director in the Directorate of Strategic Operational Planning at the National Counterterrorism Center, and a strategic advisor and senior vice president at CACI International

Terrorists should take note: The US remains undeterred

The killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri delivers long-sought justice to one of the most wanted terrorists on the planet and strikes a powerful blow to a resurgent al-Qaeda. Removing a primary architect of the 9/11 attacks also helps close a final chapter in one of the most defining and tragic moments in American history. 

Al-Zawahiri had been an instrumental figure in the Salafi jihadi movement since the 1970s, when he joined the group Egyptian Islamic Jihad. He later co-founded al-Qaeda alongside bin Laden, orchestrated multiple terrorist attacks against the United States, and served as the ideological leader for the global Salafi Islamist jihadi movement. His elimination is, unequivocally, good for America’s security and that of the free world.

Questions may arise over the operational efficacy and overall impact of killing al-Zawahiri; after all, at the time of his death, he was little more than a figurehead for the organization, whose public statements in recent years seemed aimed more at proving he still had a pulse than providing strategic guidance to the group or inspiring jihadists. 

The short answer to such questions is that the death of al-Zawahiri still carries the potential to have a significant impact. Terrorist organizations of all ideologies—but especially Salafi Islamist terrorist organizations—are steeped in traditions of symbolism, figureheads, and lore, and the elimination of one of the terrorist movement’s forefathers will undoubtedly strike a blow to the morale of al-Qaeda’s rank-and-file, as well as affect its ability to recruit. Moreover, the killing will cultivate mistrust within al-Qaeda’s senior leadership ranks as they wonder who sold out al-Zawahiri, or what operational security slip-up may have led to his death. It will force them to take more drastic measures to evade detection. 

All of these considerations will further inhibit the group’s ability to plan.  

The death of al-Zawahiri is also likely to have an impact on Islamist power dynamics in Afghanistan. He had an enduring and close bond with many of the Taliban’s senior leaders, who fought alongside al-Zawahiri in the 1980s and provided him shelter in the subsequent decades. His elimination comes at a time of tension and competition within the Taliban’s ranks: Just one month ago, the Taliban’s Supreme Leader, Habitullah Akhundzada, convened a gathering of Taliban-aligned religious leaders and demanded pledges of obedience in an effort to consolidate power. The death of al-Zawahiri under the watch of Akhundzada’s—a man to whom al-Zawahiri pledged allegiance on behalf of al-Qaeda in 2016—is likely to only exacerbate whatever fissures already exist within the Taliban, and thus weaken its ability to govern.   

Still, despite the strategic success of the strike, counterterrorism practitioners know all too well that the elimination of one man will not eliminate the threat in its entirety. Seif al-Adel, a hardened terrorist with American blood on his hands and decades of operational experience, is poised to take over the group and will likely play a more prominent (and operational) role than al-Zawahiri. But al-Adel, and terrorists the world over, should take note from this strike that even as Washington completes its pivot to great-power competition, and while domestic challenges dominate the headlines, the resilience and determination of the US military and intelligence community remain undeterred.  

Christopher K. Harnisch is a former deputy coordinator for counterterrorism at the US State Department.

‘This is an incredibly personal moment’

The successful strike on al-Zawahiri brings out deep emotions for US intelligence personnel who for decades worked in the shadows to get to this very day. Many of us buried friends along the way; I personally did. The 2009 Camp Chapman attack in Khost, Afghanistan—during which seven of my colleagues died when a double agent-turned-suicide bomber dangled intel on the notorious leader to get in—is the most stark example of the tragic costs from the fight against terrorism. The stars on CIA’s memorial wall that honor those killed in action—a sacred place for CIA personnel—is a reflection of the organization’s decades-long sacrifice and commitment to the fight. It is impossible not to stop and reflect each time you walk past it. So this is an incredibly personal moment; we mourn those lost, and celebrate our intelligence community colleagues still in the fight—whose incredible tenacity and drive culminated in removing a truly evil man from the battlefield.  

The United States has been worried about the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan since the US withdrawal from that country. The presence of Zawahiri in Kabul demonstrated the serious danger that a Taliban-led government poses to US interests. Press reports indicate that Taliban officials were aware of his presence in Kabul, and that Zawahiri was residing in a house belonging to the family of Interior Minister Siraj Haqqani. Overall, Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul makes a mockery of the Doha agreements; negotiated by the Trump administration—and surprisingly agreed to by the Biden White House—it was centered around the promise that the Taliban would renounce al-Qaeda and not allow it to reconstitute in Afghanistan. That certainly did not happen.

Separately, the strike reinforces the fact that the US government has perfected the art of manhunting—fusing human intelligence, signals intercepts, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance—to track down and eliminate terrorist targets. We are simply the best on the planet at doing this. Many of us worried this capability would be degraded after the withdrawal, but it’s clear from the Zawahiri strike that we can still track and eliminate high-value targets in South Asia.

Finally, with the likely ascension of the Iran-based Sayf al-Adel to the role of Emir of al-Qaeda , it will be yet another thorn in the US-Iran relationship and highlight Tehran’s leading role as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Marc Polymeropoulos is a nonresident senior fellow at Forward Defense and served multiple tours in the Middle East and South Asia as a CIA operations officer.

Zawahiri’s killing raises more questions than it resolves

On September 11, 2001, I was in New York City, having flown in that morning to argue a case in federal court. I was in a taxi heading into Manhattan when I first saw smoke coming from the North Tower of the World Trade Center—and then, as the cab turned into downtown and headed to the courthouse, I saw flames bursting out of the South Tower. It was an unforgettable sight. The rest of my day was similar to that of so many others: a stunned journey north from the ruins of lower Manhattan, followed by years of reflection on the cold-blooded murder of nearly three-thousand Americans. I left my law practice a week later and was privileged to serve in what would eventually become the Department of Homeland Security, working to keep our country safe from terrorism.

But over the two decades since 9/11, our focus has broadened and evolved. Here in the West, we haven’t heard much from al-Qaeda in a while. Meanwhile, other concerns have moved to center stage: the economy, climate change, and the challenges presented by China and Russia, among others. Indeed, even our conception of terrorism has changed—especially with the threat presented by right-wing and white-nationalist extremism.

But the US killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, one of the masterminds of 9/11, snaps us back to that tragic day, and reminds us of the enduring threat that al-Qaeda, ISIS, and their followers still present. It is, of course, a victory for President Joe Biden and the counterterrorism professionals who finally delivered justice to this murderer. The strike on Zawahiri should serve as a reminder to all enemies of the American people that they can never truly be safe.

But Zawahiri’s killing also raises more questions than it resolves. Why was he in Kabul, living in a house owned by a senior Taliban leader? Has the Taliban granted al-Qaeda new sanctuary in Afghanistan, from where it can rebuild and eventually launch new attacks against the West? With US troops out of the country, will the Biden administration’s “over-the-horizon” strategy be sufficient to deal with this threat? How stable is Pakistan, and how secure are its nuclear weapons? What’s the relationship between Iran and al-Qaeda? Does Zawahiri’s death matter— given the growing operational strength of al-Qaeda affiliates such as al-Shabaab in Somalia?  

All these questions can only be answered by the passage of time, by the vigilance of the United States and our allies, and by the continued bravery and commitment of the counterterrorism professionals, intelligence operatives, law enforcement officers, and soldiers who keep us safe. In the meantime, our world is better place with Ayman al-Zawahiri no longer among us.

Seth Stodder is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and served as assistant secretary of homeland security in the Obama Administration and as director of policy for US Customs and Border Protection in the Bush Administration.

Zawahiri’s last moments: Spent only blocks from the former US Embassy in Afghanistan

While long-delayed, finding Ayman al-Zawahiri and killing him was important to balance the scales of justice and to communicate to potential future enemies that America’s memory is long and its reach vast. The operation is also another interesting example that Washington’s tactical capabilities are often far more sophisticated and effective than its geostrategic ones.   

It should not be forgotten that Zawahiri’s last moments were spent only blocks from the former US Embassy in Afghanistan, and with him looking out on a country now dominated by a group the United States, its allies, and Afghan partners spent two decades fighting and dying to defeat, or at least minimize. With what we know of the man, it’s highly likely Zawahiri would count his own death as an acceptable price to pay to achieve that victory.

Bernard Hudson served for twenty-eight years as a Central Intelligence Agency operations officer, including as chief of counterterrorism, where he directed all aspects of the agency’s global war on terrorism. He is president of Looking Glass Limited.

Further reading

Related Experts: William F. Wechsler, Nathan Sales, and Thomas S. Warrick

Image: Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is seen in this still image taken from a video released on September 12, 2011. US President Joe Biden confirmed that Zawahiri was killed in a US drone strike on July 31, 2022. SITE Monitoring Service/Handout via REUTERS TV.