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. This post will be updated with fresh analysis as this story develops and our expert reactions roll in.
A vindication for Biden’s “over the horizon” approach in Afghanistan
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.
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 thousands of innocents on his hands.
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 will go to sleep tonight with a deep sense of vindication and take a well-deserved victory lap.
—William F. Wechsler is the director of the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs and a former US deputy assistant secretary of defense
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 the homeland. 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.