U.S. Kills Al Qaeda Leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri. Will It Matter?
“Justice has been delivered,” President Joe Biden said from the White House yesterday, announcing that the U.S. had “successfully conducted an airstrike in Kabul, Afghanistan that killed the amir of Al Qaeda, Ayman Al-Zawahiri.” The 71-year-old Al-Zawahiri helped plan the 9/11 attacks and took over Al Qaeda after Osama bin Laden’s death.
“The administration began moving forward with its plan to strike Zawahiri, 71, in April, after intelligence indicated he had moved into a safehouse with his wife, daughter and grandchildren,” notes TIME magazine. “Four months later, two missiles slammed into Zawahiri’s safehouse as he stood outside on the balcony taking in the morning air, according to a senior administration official. … After the strike Sunday morning, Zawahiri’s wife, daughter and grandchildren could be seen fleeing the home, the official said. The administration alleges no civilians were killed.”
Biden spun the hit as a matter of justice and resolve, saying it was a symbol of how U.S. intelligence officials “never forget” and have “extraordinary persistence.”
That’s a nice way of saying that it took them a really long time to carry this out.
Aside from fulfilling America’s sense of vengeance and scoring some points for the Biden administration, it’s not clear that the killing of Al-Zawahiri—nearly 21 years after 9/11 and 17 years after the last big Al Qaeda attack in Europe (the 2005 bombings in London that killed 52 people)—will make much of a difference for national security, or for stopping terrorism more generally.
It “doesn’t necessarily have an earth-shattering impact,” Michael Ware, TIME’s former Middle East bureau chief, told Sky News Australia. “Because these organisations are built for loss and one of the outstanding features of their ability to wage war against us is their capability to regenerate.”
Al-Zawahiri’s death could even make things worse, depending on who succeeds him as the head of Al Qaeda or how the group reacts to his death.
“It is not yet clear who will succeed al-Zawahiri—a matter supporters have not yet been observed to discuss publicly,” notes BBC journalist Mina Al-Lami. “His only publicly-known deputy, Sayf al-Adl, is reportedly living in Iran, possibly under movement and security restrictions, according to jihadist accounts.”
“The question is with Al Qaeda’s opaque hierarchy is there another succession plan in place or will this unleash some kind of factional tension as they vie to take over command and control,” suggested Ware.
Al-Zawahiri was reportedly not a terribly charismatic leader, leaving the possibility that a successor who is could do much more damage, especially if they’re able to unite various Al Qaeda factions and splinter groups around the world.
Today, “the group is splintered, with branches and affiliates spanning the globe from West Africa to India,” notes The Washington Post. “The question remains whether those groups will focus on local conflicts or coalesce for more global ambitions.”
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