TERRORISMAyman al-Zawahri’s Killing, Kits Impact on al-Qaida, and U.S. Counterterrorism?

By Haroro J. Ingram, Andrew Mines, and Daniel Milto

Published 3 August 2022

The American withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 prompted questions over whether the U.S. could keep pressure on al-Qaida, ISIS-K and other militants in the country. U.S. officials explained that an “over-the-horizon” strategy would allow the U.S. to deal with problems that emerged, but many experts disagreed. The debate over capabilities continues, but for those who doubted whether the U.S. still had the desire to go after key terrorists in Afghanistan, the killing of al-Zawahri gives a clear answer.

Ayman al-Zawahri, leader of al-Qaida and a plotter of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, has been killed in a drone strike in the Afghan city of Kabul, according to the U.S. government.

Al-Zawahri was the successor to Osama bin Laden and his death marked “one more measure of closure” to the families of those killed in the 2001 atrocities, U.S. President Joe Biden said during televised remarks on Aug. 1, 2022.

The operation came almost a year after American troops exited Afghanistan after decades of fighting there. The Conversation asked Daniel Milton, a terrorism expert at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and Haroro J. Ingram and Andrew Mines, research fellows at the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, to explain the significance of the strike on al-Zawahri and what it says about U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan under the Taliban.

Who Was Ayman al-Zawahri?
Ayman al-Zawahri was an Egyptian-born jihadist who became al-Qaida’s top leader in 2011 after his predecessor, Osama bin Laden, was killed by a U.S. operation. Al-Zawahri’s ascent followed years in which al-Qaida’s leadership had been devastated by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. Bin Laden had himself been struggling in the years leading up to his death to exert control and unity across al-Qaida’s global network of affiliates.

Al-Zawahri succeeded bin Laden despite a mixed reputation. While he had a long history of involvement in the jihadist struggle, he was viewed by many observers and even jihadists as a languid orator without formal religious credentials or battlefield reputation.

Lacking the charisma of his predecessor, al-Zawahri’s image as a leader was not helped by a tendency to embark on long, meandering and often outdated speeches. Al-Zawahri also struggled to shake rumors that he was a prison informer while detained in Egypt and, as author and journalist Lawrence Wright detailed, acted as a wedge between the young bin Laden and his mentor, Abdullah Azzam.

Al-Zawahri’s influence further waned during a series of popular uprisings known as the Arab Spring swept across North Africa and the Middle East, when it seemed that al-Qaida had been sidelined and unable to effectively exploit the outbreak of war in Syria and Iraq. To analysts and supporters alike, al-Zawahiri appeared symbolic of an al-Qaida that was outdated and rapidly being eclipsed by other groups that it had once helped onto the global stage, most notably the Islamic State.