Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s leading operative, is dead. He was obliterated in an impressively surgical strike conducted by U.S. forces, which reportedly left little collateral damage in its wake and produced no unnecessary casualties. With his death, America has meted out justice to another of 9/11’s plotters.
President Joe Biden and the U.S. military under his command deserve much credit for this feat. Indeed, the president is somewhat vindicated. After the United States executed a shambolic and bloody withdrawal of its service personnel from Afghanistan—leaving its citizens and allies behind—many speculated that its capacity to conduct “over-the-horizon counterterrorism” operations in South Central Asia would be crippled. At the time, the botched retaliatory strikes the U.S. conducted on what were believed to be ISIS- Khorasan operatives appeared to confirm that American capabilities had been crippled by the sacrifice of local bases and on-the-ground intelligence. The operation that successfully neutralized Zawahiri puts some of those concerns to rest.
And yet, the particulars of this mission raise a host of new concerns about the threat posed by transnational Islamist terrorism.
Zawahiri met his end while standing on the balcony of his safe house, which was situated in an upscale neighborhood in the Afghan capital of Kabul, just a brief walk from what used to be the American Embassy. U.S. officials told the New York Times that “al-Zawahri moved back to Afghanistan earlier this year, evidently believing he would be safe there.” The safe house was protected by senior members of the Haqqani network—a nebulous terroristic guerrilla group with ties to Pakistan’s intelligence services. Zawahiri’s whereabouts were, therefore, likely known to Islamabad. They were almost certainly known to the Taliban.
Indeed, why would al-Qaeda’s chief believe he would be safe and secure in the center of Kabul absent assurances to that effect from the Taliban?
While it remains unclear what, if any, consequences there will be for the Taliban’s efforts to offer al-Qaeda leadership safe harbor, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Taliban had “grossly” violated the terms of the 2020 Doha agreement. But the Taliban’s conduct demonstrates why the Doha agreement—much like any other accord with the Taliban—wasn’t worth the paper on which it was written.
“The Taliban has committed to prevent terrorist groups from using Afghanistan as a base for external operations that could threaten the United States or our allies, including Al Qaeda and ISIS-K,” Blinken told members of Congress in the wake of America’s withdrawal. While he assured elected officials that the U.S. would not “rely” on the Taliban to preserve America’s security, the implication that they would advance America’s interests in the region was always wildly implausible. Few in or outside the Biden administration shared Blinken’s sanguine assessment of America’s post-withdrawal prospects in Afghanistan.
It is tempting to believe that the Biden administration was playing a cynical game when its members claimed that the Taliban would somehow serve as our partners in peace. A more terrifying prospect may be that the Biden White House genuinely (and naïvely) believed they would.
The revelation that America still maintains the capability to strike terrorist elements inside Afghanistan is heartening. We’re going to need it. “The reconstruction of al-Qaeda’s homeland attack capability will happen quickly, in less than a year, if the U.S. does not collect the intelligence and take the military action to prevent it,” former CIA Director Mike Morell warned last year. The Taliban is “going to continue to support al-Qaeda,” his predecessor, Leon Panetta, agreed. It won’t be long before “they will plan additional attacks on our country, as well as elsewhere.”
The neutralization of Osama bin Laden’s aging successor will do little to disrupt al-Qaeda’s decentralized structure. What’s more, Zawahiri’s presence in the heart of Taliban-led Afghanistan confirms—if any confirmation was needed—that the Taliban is the organization’s willing partner. We have no reason to believe the terror group has given up its goal of executing spectacular attacks inside the West, and it now has a new base of operations from which to once again project power abroad.
Americans should celebrate the righteous retribution delivered to al-Qaeda’s leader. The planning and tactical acumen that went into this operation are reassuring. But it is also confirmation that al-Qaeda has a state again, and America’s mission in Afghanistan is far from over.