What are the repercussions of the killing of al-Qaeda leader in Afghanistan?

By Mohammed Al-Faqi – Interregional for Strategic Analytics
US President Joe Biden announced, during his speech on the morning of August 2, 2022, the targeting of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri, in the Afghan capital, “Kabul”. During his speech, Biden did not provide precise details about the targeting process, but he only mentioned the general framework of the operation, by granting permission to kill Al-Zawahiri about a week ago, after determining his place of residence earlier this year. No official position has been issued by “Al-Qaeda” so far to deny or confirm the killing of Al-Zawahiri, as is the case with the “Taliban” movement, which issued a statement rejecting the American bombing of a house in the Afghan capital, without providing any details indicating that Al-Zawahiri was one of the residents of this targeted house.

Operation Dimensions

In light of Biden’s brief speech about the operation targeting Al-Zawahiri, and the information reported by some American newspapers to reveal the circumstances of the American operation; The main dimensions can be identified, as follows:

1- Resorting to an unconventional targeting pattern:The United States of America used the pattern of bombing by drones, the first time that American forces carried out a bombing operation since the withdrawal of forces in August 2021. Despite the importance of Al-Zawahiri, as a high-value target for the United States, it did not resort to using the airdrop method, As happened in the process of targeting high-value targets in the past, such as Osama bin Laden, the former leader of Al-Qaeda, Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashemi Al-Qurashi, the former leader of the “ISIS” organization, and his predecessor, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.The airdrop process makes it possible to ascertain the arrest or liquidation of those prominent leaders in terrorist organizations, but this time the use of aerial bombardment by a drone, may be due to the difficulty of the landing process in Afghanistan, in light of a high risk assessment, as it is an unfavorable environment for a landing operation. Air Force, you may face a severe confrontation from the Taliban movement, in addition to the unwillingness to escalate tension with the movement, after carrying out an operation inside Afghanistan without full coordination with it.

2- Employing a modern, high-accuracy missile: In the context of confronting any possible repercussions of targeting al-Zawahiri due to the military currency itself, and not the political repercussions, some Western estimates indicated that the American forces that carried out the air strike on the house where al-Zawahiri lived, used smart munitions. It allows carrying out operations and reducing the size of human losses and collateral damage to the bombing process, and it is likely the use of a high-precision “RX9” missile capable of striking the target in a focused manner without explosion, which prevents other casualties. This is evident from the US President’s reference, in his speech, to the fact that no members of the Al-Zawahiri family were killed, in addition to the absence of human losses as a side effect of the aerial bombardment.

3- Washington’s ability to carry out qualitative operations: The timing of the targeting reflects important implications related to the approaching end of the first year of the complete withdrawal of US forces from Afghan territory. Despite this, and despite the prospects of depriving the United States of continuing the field effort to follow up and pursue terrorist activities, specifically Al-Qaeda, which US reports indicate that it received a boost after the withdrawal of US forces, allowing it freedom of movement, the targeting process and its timing It indicates that the United States is continuing its efforts in environments that are not conducive to field work, in addition to the fact that the peace agreement with the Taliban will not constitute an obstacle to continuing to target wanted persons on the American terrorist list, regardless of the length of time to pursue these, specifically those who were involved in the terrorist attacks. Targeting the United States and American forces and interests, in the words of Joe Biden.

4- The ambiguity of the intelligence effort prior to the operation: In his speech, the US President did not reveal specific details about the preparatory process for targeting Al-Zawahiri, in light of the theoretical decline in US intelligence field work after the withdrawal from Afghanistan; Therefore, the process of determining the residence of the leader of “Al-Qaeda” involves a number of possibilities. The first is related to the United States maintaining its network of Afghan collaborators at home, who work in the context of gathering information on the movements of Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

As for the second possibility, it is related to the possibility of receiving support from parties within the Taliban movement, especially since the place of residence of al-Zawahiri is not expected to be known by all the elements and leaders within the Taliban movement. The third possibility is related to the United States receiving accidental information about the possible presence of al-Zawahiri in the targeted house, which was verified, especially with the retreat of the strict security measures that surrounded al-Zawahiri, and the abandonment of the security ban; This allowed him to record a number of publications and broadcast them through the channels affiliated with the organization during the past few months, which have increased at a significant rate since the Taliban movement took control of the government, compared to previous years.

Washington’s surprise

The possible effects of targeting Ayman al-Zawahiri can be identified, according to American assurances; This is as follows:

1- Enhancing confidence in President “Biden” both internally and externally: The potential effects on the United States as a result of targeting Al-Zawahiri are divided on two levels: the first at the external level, which is a message to the allies and partners of the United States, to continue efforts to combat terrorism, and to target prominent leaders of terrorist organizations, especially In light of the fears of the repercussions of the sudden US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which allowed the Taliban movement to control the government in a few days, and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan without specific arrangements; To ensure that the Taliban is not controlled, in addition to other factors that have resulted in some US allies and partners viewing it as an unreliable ally, particularly in the face of security challenges. During the Jeddah Security and Development Summit, the US President touched upon the continuation of efforts to combat terrorism.

second level internally; There are potential internal effects of targeting al-Zawahiri; Due to considerations related to his involvement in targeting the United States and its interests, specifically the events of September 11, 2001, when he was deputy to former leader Osama bin Laden, and then the liquidation of Al-Zawahiri has a symbolic significance inside the US within the framework of the “revenge” process, in addition to trying to limit potential threats to interests. In the future, Biden may want to increase his popularity at home, after opinion polls showed a decline in his popularity to 39%, according to Bloomberg Agency, in light of a number of internal challenges, but this will remain dependent on opinion polls on Biden’s popularity during the next few months.

2- Possible limited effects on Al-Qaeda: Al- Zawahiri’s personality is considered controversial in jihadist circles, in light of a comparison between his popularity and influence and that of his predecessor Osama bin Laden, a comparison that favored bin Laden. These comparisons escalated, specifically after the establishment of the “ISIS” organization, and the state of intense competition at the level of transnational terrorist organizations within the framework of the “global jihad” project, and the consequent loss of “Al-Qaeda” some of its loyal groups to ISIS, and the defection of elements from organization to join ISIS.

Nevertheless, Al-Zawahiri maintained a degree of cohesion for some of his groups, despite the rise of ISIS and the liquidation of a large number of Al-Qaeda leaders in multiple environments and countries by the United States. However, it is not expected that Al-Zawahiri’s killing will lead to significant and prolonged effects within the “Al-Qaeda” organization. And its branches, in the light of a decentralized pattern between the central leadership of the organization in Afghanistan and between the branches, and granting these branches freedom of movement and the provision of private sources of funding, while adhering to the general framework of the directions of the central leadership. However, the limited influence is related to who will succeed Al-Zawahiri in the leadership of “Al-Qaeda”, the extent to which the main branches agree on the personality of the new organization’s leader, and his ability to chart the paths of the organization’s development during the coming period, with the continued competition with ISIS.

3- Various negative repercussions on the Taliban movement: The killing of al-Zawahiri could affect the Taliban movement on two levels: the first; The relationship with the United States, as the American president did not refer to coordination with the Taliban in the process of targeting him, despite what the peace agreement signed in Qatar provides for coordination before any American operations in Afghanistan, but the failure to report reflects the lack of confidence of the United States in the movement, in a way that may It bears the possible repercussions of the targeting process without coordination in exchange for the killing of Al-Zawahiri. Although the “Taliban” issued a statement condemning the American bombing operation inside Afghan territory, it is not expected that this will have extended effects on the peace agreement, in light of the movement’s desire to obtain international recognition, and to release frozen funds abroad, specifically in the United States, in light of The internal challenges facing the movement.

As for the second, at the level of the relationship with “Al-Qaeda.” The targeting of Al-Zawahiri may lead to tensions between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda; Not only at the level of groups inside Afghanistan, but at the level of various branches and groups, even if they remain hidden and not public, especially with the possibility of holding the movement responsible for targeting al-Zawahiri, given that it provides protection and a safe haven, and accusations of the movement escalate among jihadist circles, specifically in the organization.” ISIS,” by handing over al-Zawahiri. Regardless of the direct responsibility of the Taliban, for which there are no clear indications, it could be that the leak of al-Zawahiri’s residence came from one of the movement’s elements, and it will be the subject of investigation and investigation within the movement. However, it can be noted that the killing of Al-Zawahiri may represent a breakthrough for the “Taliban” by getting rid of American pressure by handing over Al-Zawahiri in particular; Given its symbolic importance, in addition to the fact that it is possible to evade the obligation to provide “inherited” protection for the organization during the coming period, in light of the inability to provide such protection. However, this will be the subject of study within the movement, in light of a dispute between some groups, specifically the “Haqqani Network,” which Western estimates indicate is the closest to the global jihad project, providing havens for al-Qaeda leaders and elements.

foggy future

Finally, targeting Ayman al-Zawahiri – despite its importance and the great symbolism it holds for the United States of America – opens the door to the possibility of the decline of “Al-Qaeda” or the increase of activity in the future. This depends on who will succeed Al-Zawahiri in the leadership of the organization during the coming period. Given the limited options, in light of the killing of a number of influential leaders of the organization that were the subject of an agreement in the jihadist circles, most notably Abu Baseer al-Wuhayshi, the former leader of the al-Qaeda branch in Yemen; Among the possible names of the leadership of the organization, “Saif al-Adl,” which Western intelligence estimates indicate is based in Iran, stands out, and may face obstacles in light of the escalation of the conflict between Al-Qaeda and the Shiites in more than one country. But the most prominent question about the future of the “Al-Qaeda” organization is: Will the central leadership of the organization move outside Afghanistan or not? Which will become clear to a large extent in the next stage.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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