Five things to know about the killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri

Farah N. Jan, senior lecturer in international relations and political science, discusses what happened, what his killing means for counterterrorism, and the impact it will have on the future of al-Qaida.

Osama bin Laden, right, listens as his top deputy Ayman al-Zawahri speaks at an undisclosed location in 2002
In this television image from Arab satellite station Al-Jazeera, Osama bin Laden, right, listens as his top deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri speaks at an undisclosed location, in this image made from undated video tape broadcast by the station Monday April 15, 2002. (Image: AP Photo/Al-Jazeera/APTN)

Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaida, was killed in the July 31 United States drone strike in a high-security district of Kabul.

Farah N. Jan is a senior lecturer in international relations and political science in the School of Arts & Sciences. Here, she shares five things to know about what happened, what his killing means for counterterrorism, and what impact will it have on the future of al-Qaida.

Ayman al-Zawahiri: A long-time revolutionary

Ayman al-Zawahiri was the head of al-Qaida after the U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. He was born in 1951 to a family of professors and physicians in Cairo. Al-Zawahiri became a revolutionary at 15 and joined an Islamist underground cell. In 1981, al-Zawahiri was implicated in President Anwar Sadat’s assassination and jailed for four years. After his release from an Egyptian prison, he joined bin Laden in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Since then, al-Zawahiri has been responsible for planning and ordering numerous terrorist attacks against the United States—including the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Kenya and Tanzania, the U.S.S. Cole attack in Yemen in 2000, and the Sept. 11 attacks.

Since Sept. 11, the longtime al-Qaida leader had been on the run and hiding in the eastern mountainous region of Afghanistan.

A miscalculated safe house

For years al-Zawahiri had evaded U.S. forces and drones—until July 31 when he was struck by two hellfire missiles while reading on the balcony of his safe house.

After the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, al-Zawahiri praised the return of Taliban rule and called it a win for global jihad. Al-Zawahiri was confident of his protectors and moved to a safe house in the Sherpur neighborhood of Kabul owned by Sirajuddin Haqqani, the interior minister and the deputy head of the state of Afghanistan. The Taliban are a multifaction group, and the Haqqani’s are the Islamist militants allied with the Taliban. The U.S. government has a $10 million bounty on Sirajuddin Haqqani for his alleged terrorist activities.

What al-Zawahiri miscalculated was the U.S. resolve and intelligence resources in getting him. Instead, he trusted his Taliban/Haqqani guardians. The CIA had been tracking al-Zawahiri’s location since April of this year and established a pattern of life analysis. Based on the intelligence gathered, al-Zawahiri was expected to be alone on the balcony, where he started his day by reading in the morning. The missile was on a remotely manned drone, the MQ-9 Reaper, which is guided with sophisticated cameras and flies over the target. The R9X hellfire missile to get al-al-Zawahiri was fitted with a laser, and, when dropped to hit the target, it shoots six blades before impact to kill only one person. There are no explosives on the missile, thus reducing structural damage and minimizing the civilian casualties.

Symbolic, much-needed counterterrorism win for Biden

A year ago, at the drawdown of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, President Biden remarked that the U.S. is working on an over-the-horizon counterterrorism strategy that entails surveillance, intelligence, and precision-strike capability, coupled with “acting quickly and decisively” to eliminate terrorist operatives.

The al-Zawahiri killing gave the Biden administration a much-needed counterterrorism victory, especially after the disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan last year. For the time being, the al-al-Zawahiri strike provides some consolation for the counterterrorism strategy, but it does not establish its success for various reasons. To begin with, al-Zawahiri was living in Kabul for a year and getting intel in Kabul would be easier than in the mountainous villages with a sparse population. Moreover, in recent years, al-Zawahiri was seen as a “figurehead” with very little control over the terrorist organization. He had failed to energize the terrorist organization and was perceived as out of touch with the movement. John Brennan, assistant to President Barack Obama for homeland security and counterterrorism, described him as “an aging doctor who lacks Bin Laden’s charisma and perhaps the loyalty and respect of many in al-Qaida.”

So, the killing serves as a symbolic win for President Biden and will help his domestic approval ratings. On the counterterrorism front, al-Zawahiri’s death will most likely make no difference in the operations and organization of al-Qaida. However, what is surprising is his brazen location choice of Kabul. His whereabouts raise important questions about the Taliban government's commitment to the Doha Agreement.

Violation of the Doha Agreement

The Taliban government blatantly violated the Doha accords by sheltering al-Zawahiri in a high-security Kabul neighborhood. During al-Zawahiri’s stay in Kabul, he produced and disseminated content to incite violence against the United States. As Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said, “the Taliban ‘grossly violated’ Doha Agreement by hosting and sheltering al-Qaida’s top leader.”

The Doha agreement called for the Taliban to sever ties with al-Qaida and “to prevent the use of Afghan soil by any international terrorist groups or individuals against the security of the United States and its allies.” Both the Trump and Biden administrations have wrongly estimated the Taliban's commitment to the agreement and their ties to al-Qaida.

The initial assessment demonstrates that many Taliban leaders are not happy that al-Zawahiri was in Kabul and that it will likely hurt their international credibility and legitimacy. Additionally, it will exacerbate the tense relationship between the various Taliban factions and their relationship with the international community.

An al-Qaida leadership crisis

Al-Qaida now faces a succession crisis—Who is going to replace Zawahiri? The top two candidates have legitimacy issues due to their location and being restricted in Iran. Most analysts believe that Saif al-Adel, the Egyptian militant, will be the next emir. However, his leadership presents a conundrum; he is living under a quasi-house arrest in Iran. The other candidate is Abd al-Rahman al-Maghrebi, Zawahiri’s Moroccan son-in-law and the head of al Qaida media operations, with the similar dilemma of being based in Iran. For al Qaida and its affiliates, Iran is considered a Shiite enemy state responsible for killing Sunnis in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. More importantly, having its leadership under enemy control would be problematic, creating legitimacy of command issues for the terrorist organization.

The death of al-Zawahiri and the absence of clear leadership could be the end of al-Qaida as a global jihad organization. However, that does not mean the end of local or regional jihadi movements will collapse. The next steps for al-Qaida and the Taliban are unclear, but the mistrust between the two groups has undoubtedly increased.