Afghanistan Middle East Security & Defense South Asia Terrorism United States and Canada
SouthAsiaSource August 3, 2022

Experts react: Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of al-Qaeda, killed by US drone strike in Afghanistan

By South Asia Center experts

On July 31, 2022, a US drone strike in Kabul killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda who, alongside Osama bin Laden, masterminded the attacks of September 11, 2001. The strike on Zawahiri came nearly a year after US forces withdrew from Afghanistan, and represents the first publicly declared US counterterrorism strike inside the country. 

Among a multitude of arguments in favor of and against the strike, some supporters laud the move as a serious blow to al-Qaeda’s image and operational capability. Conversely, critics say that it doubled as a ploy by US President Joseph R. Biden to bolster sinking political support in the United States, arguing that the strike will have little effect in tangible terms for combating terrorism in Afghanistan and the region.

South Asia Center experts provide their analyses of the situation:

Javid Ahmad: Al-Qaeda’s new leadership will expectedly reassess its own ties with their various Taliban partners

Rabia Akhtar: The assassination provides Biden the facesaving he badly needed

Kamal Alam: Zawahiri was clearly living in Kabul with ease

James Cunningham: There can be no question that Taliban leadership welcomed Zawahiri in Kabul

Hameed Hakimi: The killing of Zawahiri bears a negligible accomplishment for the Biden administration in confronting any possible threats to the United States

Sahar Halaimzai: The people of Afghanistan must now live with the threat of violence not just by the Taliban but by drone strikes as well

Roya Rahmani: Afghanistan is at risk of once again becoming a breeding ground for militancy, fueled by extreme poverty and an oppressive regime

Omar Samad: A drone attack with consequences and choices

Harris Samad: Sanction, isolate, and occasionally rain fire from the sky cannot become the extent of US-Afghanistan relations

Al-Qaeda’s new leadership will expectedly reassess its own ties with their various Taliban partners

As the Taliban exploit various terror threats to blackmail regional and non-regional forces to extract recognition or normalization of relations, al-Qaeda’s new leadership will expectedly reassess its own ties with their various Taliban partners. While there are real risks of al-Qaeda severing its Taliban ties, the Taliban hardliners could potentially mitigate any al-Qaeda overreaction directed at the Taliban through certain concessions. Resetting this codependent partnership could include deepening the common intelligence and operational picture between the two groups, internal retaliatory killings to avenge the senior Sheikh, relocation of al-Qaeda camps, and tightening personnel for operational security. For the United States, Zawahiri’s killing in the Taliban’s capital has opened several opportunities to consider.  

First, Washington should declassify one of the two classified annexes of the 2020 Doha agreement to publicly scrutinize whether the Taliban are living up to their counterterrorism commitments.  

Second, while the Afghanistan debacle has now been largely regionalized, Washington should fix the limits of its over-the-horizon counterterrorism engagement–which, while significant, lulls into a false sense of security. Despite the current nature of limited militant targeting, the distance limits in the “horizon,” the absence of local partners and support teams, intelligence collection or ground-level verification, as well as early warning capabilities remain unclear. While some Afghan elements of paramilitary support teams are to my knowledge on the ground, their limited reach should be quietly expanded. What’s also missing from the debate is an urgent need for a redefined US regional counterterrorism strategy, paired with an on-the-ground monitoring mechanism perhaps based in Termez, Uzbekistan, to provide clarity about Washington’s new rules of engagement.  

Third, as the jihadist threat becomes more decentralized and the Taliban’s civilian bureaucracy becomes more militarized, the value of covert and targeted action should not be underestimated. Washington could consider expanding its roster of targets to include a basket of the Taliban/Haqqani operatives who play critical enabling roles in jihadist activities. This basket includes known senior- and mid-level Taliban intelligence operatives, couriers, financiers, logisticians, and recruiters.  

Finally, internally, the Taliban are undergoing an identity crisis, with the group split between the ideologues and the businessmen. The group’s cohesion depends on how well they manage power and patronage, a recurring challenge that has long troubled power dynamics in Afghanistan. For Washington, a critical blind spot in its Taliban policy has been its negligible engagement with the Taliban clerics, particularly in Kandahar. Because ideology is deeply entrenched in nearly all Taliban actions, there is a burning need for robust religious diplomacy that creatively (and directly) engages the Taliban’s clerics. While Washington has discouraged supporting armed opposition against the Taliban, it could consider cultivating an institutional counterweight within the Taliban ranks to shape the group’s choices and actions.  

Javid Ahmad is a non-resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. On Twitter: @ahmadjavid

The assassination provides Biden the facesaving he badly needed

“My fellow Americans….justice has been delivered,” Biden concluded during his statement while taking credit for eliminating Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, in Kabul, Afghanistan. While it is too early to even speculate about the details of the drone attack which killed Zawahiri, his elimination surely brings closure to the victims of the 9/11 attacks which Zawahiri planned as Osama bin Laden’s deputy. While the assassination takes the heat off Washington’s embarrassing and hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, more specifically, it provides Biden the facesaving he badly needed. Soon, the American public will forget the twenty-year defeat in Afghanistan, and remember Biden for finally avenging the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which were incomplete after bin Laden’s assassination since Zawahiri was still at large. 

While the world applauds the United States for damaging al-Qaeda, which has received the biggest blow since bin Laden’s elimination, Afghanistan’s Taliban government has termed it as a violation of the 2020 Doha accords it signed with the United States. While the Taliban gave guarantees that Afghanistan would not become a safe haven for terrorists, the United States too assured its support for counterterrorism against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-K). Now, both parties are blaming each other for breaching the essence of the accords and the guarantees stipulated therein. It is too early to speculate whether the Taliban shared intel with Washington about Zawahiri’s location in Kabul leading to the precision drone attack in lieu of any guarantees on humanitarian assistance, economic, or development assistance by the United States. However, if the Taliban did strike a deal with Washington for any such assistance (which does not need to come to them directly through Washington for fear of the associated optics), then it is important for them to deny it to avoid public backlash.

It is also not clear at this point whether Pakistan’s airspace was used for this attack to take place and if it was, then under what terms and conditions is Pakistan working with the United States for over-the-horizon counterterrorism cooperation. While it will take some time for these details to be revealed, Pakistan’s cooperation with the United States on counterterrorism is one area which should remain an important bilateral space even when no US boots are on the ground and in the region. Pakistan’s Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terrorism problem, as well as the TTP’s safe haven in Afghanistan, in due course can also be addressed through Pakistan-US joint counterterrorism engagement. 

Dr. Rabia Akhtar is a non-resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.

Zawahiri was clearly living in Kabul with ease

The biggest take away from the Kabul strike is that despite their public statement of distancing themselves from terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and the IS-K, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was clearly living in Kabul with ease. The old guard of the Taliban leadership still have their networks and relationships in tact even if they don’t tacitly or tactically support the international terror organizations which were based in Afghanistan in the 1990s from Chechnya, Balkans, the Middle East, and East Asia. Whilst the Taliban are local and at best regional, they might still look the other way when it comes to old friendships they had. They have also begun to take a hit in the north east of the country in Panjshir and Andrab along with Badakhshan, so other groups can easily fill the vacuum. The Taliban were good fighters but are far from capable of any form of governance with increasing attacks by IS-K in Kabul. 

The other takeaway is the success of the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) in over-the-horizon operations in Afghanistan. The single biggest success of the United States in twenty years in Afghanistan is how SOCOM was able to project power and take out the majority of al-Qaeda leadership. This will be a fundamental component going forward, i.e., the right intelligence, how it is leveraged, and–without any need to deploy resources directly–hit the terrorists at will. For Pakistan and Iran, who could be most vulnerable given their links to the Taliban and al-Qaeda respectively (with Zawahiri’s family and successor based in Iran), things will get more heated as Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence struggle to contain domestic security with either Israeli attacks on Iran or TTP and Balochistan Liberation Army attacks in Pakistan. All this makes Afghanistan a theater again that connects instability from South Asia to the Middle East as well as a nervous Central Asia. 

Kamal Alam is a non-resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.

There can be no question that Taliban leadership welcomed Zawahiri in Kabul

The killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri should serve to remind that the United States will pursue and bring to justice those who have and would harm Americans. We have both long memory and reach. The loss of Zawahiri is unlikely at this point to have a decisive impact on al-Qaeda itself, but the more important fact is that he was located at a villa in a wealthy section of downtown Kabul, with his family, apparently accustomed to taking his ease on the property. There can be no question that the Taliban leadership welcomed him in Kabul and that, as in the past, an al-Qaeda leader was enjoying Taliban hospitality and protection. Yes, the welcome demise of Zawahiri demonstrates that after its ill-advised withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States can conduct over the horizon attacks on terrorists there—if they remain in a fixed position for a long period of time and make mistakes, which is uncommon in the world of al-Qaeda jihadism with which the Taliban obviously remain associated.  And which I fear will come again to present a threat to the region, to the United States, and to our allies as the Taliban’s relationship with al-Qaeda endures.  

Amb. James Cunningham is a non-resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.

The killing of Zawahiri bears a negligible accomplishment for the Biden administration in confronting any possible threats to the United States

The US drone strike that killed Zawahiri is the first known successful over-the-horizon counterterrorism operation since August 2021. Over-the-horizon capabilities were mooted as a potential approach to addressing any future security threats as Biden announced the unconditional withdrawal of US (and by extension NATO) troops in April 2021. However, it is too early to speculate if the drone strike that killed Zawahiri is a potential game-changer in pressuring the Taliban from the skies, or indeed if it is the first of continued future attacks. Biden is likely to promote the incident as evidence of his decisiveness to pursue the United States’ enemies amidst his sinking approval ratings. Yet, al-Qaeda has become drastically weakened in its capability in a crowded marketplace of insurgents, non-state actors, and other violent extremists such as IS-K. Critically, however, the attack could force jihadist groups and violent extremist groups currently in Afghanistan to go underground. This will store longer-term counterterrorism challenges as Afghanistan is isolated, cut off diplomatically from the West, and ruled by an internationally unrecognised regime. 

The most immediate consequences of the attack confront the Taliban regime as the spokesmen are forced to provide explanations online and in front of the cameras. Despite the grand claims of establishing its writ over the entire geography of Afghanistan, the Taliban regime seems helpless in asserting control on Afghan airspace–a substantial weakness. This is also indicative of the difficulties the group faces in transforming from a violent insurgency into a governing party. Dealing with internationally significant incidents may not be a strength that Taliban leaders possess, exposing their inexperience and the complications of governance in a challenging environment.

Regionally, while Pakistan has been a key patron of the Taliban, any Pakistan-US collaboration on drone strikes that do not receive a tacit nod from Taliban leaders will severely restrict the Taliban’s ability to continually project itself as the victorious rulers of Afghanistan. Pakistan could also leverage a renewed cooperation with the United States to threaten TTP elements who are currently sheltered by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Ultimately, the key outcomes from the killing of Zawahiri will manifest in Afghanistan and the region, forcing alignments and realignments. At present, it seems the killing of Zawahiri bears negligible accomplishment for the Biden administration in confronting any possible threats to the United States and its allies emanating from a weakened al-Qaeda.

Hameed Hakimi is a non-resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.

The people of Afghanistan must now live with the threat of violence not just by the Taliban but by drone strikes as well

While a major win for President Biden, what the strike against Zawahiri has demonstrated is not only what we have long known–that the Taliban are not abiding by the terms of the Doha deal but significantly that America’s war in Afghanistan continues. There are a number of potential consequences to the strike, but a major trend to watch is the deepening factionalism within the Taliban. 

My concern is that with the number of terror groups operating in Afghanistan, this strike is a sign of things to come and while this time there was no civilian casualties, next time there may well be. The people of Afghanistan, betrayed time and again, are having to contend with hunger, poverty and repression and must also live with the threat of violence not just by the Taliban but by drone strikes as well.

Sahar Halaimzai is a non-resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.

Afghanistan is at risk of once again becoming a breeding ground for militancy, fueled by extreme poverty and an oppressive regime

The killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri in a US drone strike this past weekend was a decisive moment for Afghanistan, the region, and the United States. Not only did it demonstrate Washington’s yet-unproven over-the-horizon counterterrorism strategy, but it also raised key questions about the broader politico-security context in which the strike occurred. However, the continued use of over-the-horizon tactics has its limitations, chiefly due to it requiring one of two imperfect scenarios to be the case. 

  • The first is akin to Sunday’s drone strike, where a high-profile individual or group grows in strength to such a degree that irrefutable evidence exists confirming its priority as a counterterrorism target. The issue here is that such a strategy is reactive, allowing militant leaders to grow along with their respective support networks before they become sufficiently visible to warrant targeting by counterterrorism forces. 
  • The second option is a proactive strike, targeting individuals, groups, and networks of potential concern before they become as influential as someone like Zawahiri. The issue here is that, since the United States and allies lack eyes and ears on the ground in Afghanistan, to a degree this policy is akin to “going in blind” with less intelligence and reduced chance of clear confirmation that someone or something in fact should be targeted. The chance of civilian casualties–due to less accurate intelligence and, therefore, poorer targeting–is thus high.

While US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that the Taliban has “grossly” violated the 2020 Doha agreement by sheltering Zawahiri, there remains a narrow set of options for translating this hard-hitting rhetoric into policy. The United States could end current and future cooperation with the Taliban. Alternatively, it could double down on emergency aid efforts to prevent a collapse, focus discussion with the Taliban specifically on counterterrorism, and let go of all other areas (such as girls education). Given that the United States has no eyes or ears on the ground in Afghanistan, it is difficult to believe that the drone strike which killed Zawahiri was not undergirded by some measure of local participation. Furthermore, neighboring Pakistan must be noted in this equation. Its evolving role in the region–branded by Islamabad as a transition from security to geoeconomics–will be further complicated by the fluid landscape next door that Sunday’s events were quick to demonstrate. 

As Afghanistan enters this new phase of uncertainty, the country is at risk of once again becoming a breeding ground for militancy, fueled by extreme poverty and an oppressive regime that has little regard for human rights. 

Amb. Roya Rahmani is a senior advisor with the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.

A drone attack with consequences and choices

While many sensitive questions will most likely remain unanswered about the early Sunday morning drone attack in Kabul’s green zone that killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, the titular head of the notorious al-Qaeda central, it is becoming more obvious now that the timing and circumstances surrounding this attack were not only not coincidental but could also be fateful, especially for Kabul’s de facto rulers. 

For some in the United States, it resonates as a success story that carries political advantage for a presidential administration struggling in the polls weeks before midterm elections. For others in South Asia, though, it might pave the way for a 1.2 billion dollar financial bonanza from the IMF to shore up Pakistan’s struggling economy–that is, if the latest reports that Pakistan gave a helping hand to the United States are confirmed. Reports indicate that RX9 Hellfire missiles were allowed to cross Pakistani airspace and enter Afghanistan before homing in on their intended target in downtown Kabul. Whether Pakistan also provided critical intelligence to Washington confirming Zawahiri’s whereabouts remains a secret thus far.

Although the Egyptian jihadist veteran, rumored on several occasions to have died of bad health in the past, was known as an ineffective Osama bin Laden successor who lacked charisma, the killing (not yet confirmed by the Taliban rulers in Kabul) is also seen as redemption for those advocating an over-the-horizon counterterrorism solution instead of boots on the ground in Afghanistan.

The ball is now, once again, in the Taliban’s court as both Washington and Kabul accuse each other of having violated the counterterrorism terms of the controversial 2020 Doha agreement. Questions will also be raised about why, who knew, who was involved, and what was gained or lost at a time when Afghanistan is reeling under economic sanctions and the de facto regime is struggling to gain international recognition despite accusations of political monopoly and an abysmal record on human and gender rights.

While it is inconceivable that at least some within the Taliban did not know about Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul, there will be a lot of hand wringing and Taliban style questioning regarding the consequences and aftermath of a major public relations setback. There is, however, an opportunity to reassess and a choice between further hardening–leading to more isolation–or taking the pragmatic stance of course correction and relaxation of measures that have hurt the Afghan population and the country’s interests.

Amb. Omar Samad is a non-resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. 

Sanction, isolate, and occasionally rain fire from the sky cannot alone become the extent of US-Afghanistan relations

US policy towards Afghanistan following the withdrawal of last August was defined by the quiet isolation and sanctioning of the Taliban regime. That this uncomfortable silence, however, was broken nearly one year later–with something as bloody and detached as a drone strike, no less–is telling of how low Afghanistan sits among US foreign policy priorities. 

One might be quick to blame Biden, and there is certainly responsibility to be laid with his administration. That said, the situation is not without nuance. Biden spearheaded the chaotic US withdrawal, yes, but this was in response to a challenging card dealt by former US President Donald J. Trump and former US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, who led the US-Taliban deal signed in February 2020 that set in motion the events leading us to today. Seeking a quick off-ramp from the stalemate US, NATO, and former Republic forces had reached with the Taliban’s insurgency, the deal quite questionably trusted the Taliban to disavow ties to other terrorist groups, notably al-Qaeda. 

It is difficult to believe, however, that the Taliban could not have known Zawahiri was hiding in Afghanistan, let alone in the capital, though Trump at the time of the 2020 Doha deal publicly endorsed the group’s commitment to that stipulation. 

The long-term ramifications of this push to extract the United States from Afghanistan at any cost (even trusting the Taliban under dubious circumstances) are now coming into focus. First, the subsequent sanction-and-isolate policy created a narrow field of engagement between Kabul and Washington. This reduced Biden’s options to high-risk/high-reward moves (such as over-the-horizon drone strikes) with neither a long-term plan nor clarity on whether the infrastructure exists for their continued “success.” Second and most concerningly, we now run the possibility of a counterterrorism lens asserting more than its fair weight in US policy towards Afghanistan. This focus would serve neither the interests of Afghans, the region, nor the United States.

Sunday’s events set a new precedent. Though the elimination of al-Qaeda’s figurehead should be considered a win in the immediate, “sanction, isolate, and occasionally rain fire from the sky” cannot alone be the extent of US-Afghanistan relations.

Harris Samad is assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.

The South Asia Center is the hub for the Atlantic Council’s analysis of the political, social, geographical, and cultural diversity of the region. ​At the intersection of South Asia and its geopolitics, SAC cultivates dialogue to shape policy and forge ties between the region and the global community.

Related Experts: Rabia Akhtar, Kamal Alam, James B. Cunningham, Hameed Hakimi, Omar Samad, Harris A. Samad, Javid Ahmad, Sahar Halaimzai, and Roya Rahmani

Image: U.S. President Joe Biden addresses the nation on the killing of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a U.S. drone strike, in Washington, U.S. August 1, 2022. Jim Watson/Pool via REUTERS