After having killed Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri with a drone that hit the home he had been hiding in Kabul, the United States has, to a large extent, finished avenging the 9/11 attacks.
The perpetrators were killed in bloody attacks, and Osama bin Laden was then killed by Navy SEALs in May 2011 in Pakistan. Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the “mastermind” behind the attacks, remains in Guantanamo Bay after being arrested in Pakistan years ago. Many of the other perpetrators are either rotting there with him or were killed by the US.
But what does eliminating Zawahiri mean? This article tries to answer that question.
A contentious, complicated relationship
The first questions that come to mind ask what Zawahiri was doing in Kabul and whether his being there a year after the Taliban had returned to power, after the collapse of former President Ashraf Ghani’s government and the withdrawal of US forces, meant that an Al-Qaeda's return to the Afghan capital had been sanctioned by the Taliban.
As we all know, the US withdrew from Afghanistan after concluding the Doha Agreement with the Taliban during former President Donald Trump’s term and implementing it under Joe Biden. That agreement stipulated, among other things, that the Taliban would not allow terrorist organizations to use Afghan soil to plan or carry out attacks against any other country again.
The Taliban thus indirectly admitted that Al-Qaeda had used Afghanistan as a base from which it planned and implemented 9/11 and promised not to let that happen again after having “learned from the mistakes of the past.”
Taliban leaders have discussed learning from past mistakes a lot since returning to power. However, many are skeptical about whether the movement has actually learned its lesson after losing power for 20 years because it had harbored terrorist organizations using its territory to carry out attacks on other countries.
The skeptics point out that the Taliban has promised, for example, to allow girls to go back to school but has not done so thus far.
On the other hand, some have defended it, pointing to the fact that it has treated its former enemies well after they remained in the country despite Ghani fleeing, though it did not allow them to take part in forming the new regime in Kabul.
Regardless of whether girls are allowed back to school and how defeated rivals are treated, the international community and the US are primarily concerned with whether the country will become a sanctuary for terrorists like it had been when the Taliban first ruled in the 1990s.
In fact, several reports have discussed the prospect of an Al-Qaeda return to Afghanistan, but they cannot be confirmed in light of the Taliban’s muteness on the matter. US officials confirmed that Taliban officials had visited the safehouse where Zawahiri was killed, meaning that he had been under their protection, or at least a wing of the movement. Indeed, the ties between the two were never severed, especially in the east, where the Haqqani Network operates.
That does not mean that the leaders of this Network, who have prominent positions in Kabul, were protecting the Al-Qaeda chief in Kabul.
In truth, it is difficult to answer this question conclusively given the lack of evidence to either deny or confirm this claim, just like it had been impossible to ascertain whether bin Laden had taken permission from former Taliban leader Mullah Omar before launching the 9/11 attacks.
Who will succeed Zawahiri?
When bin Laden was killed in 2011, Zawahiri was swiftly chosen to succeed him, surprising no one. He had headed the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and was right beneath bin Laden in Al-Qaeda’s chain of command. The he men had been close since living together in Khartoum before being expelled from Sudan in 1996.
Today, the picture is far murkier. Much of Al-Qaeda’s top brass were killed, especially in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Syria. Among the most prominent leaders left is Saif al-Adl, an Egyptian Al-Qaeda official who had lived in Iran after he fled Afghanistan following the US invasion in 2001 and maintains ties with the Revolutionary Guards.
Nonetheless, Al-Qaeda might choose someone else, a figure who moved to Afghanistan to live under the new regime of the Taliban, as Zawahiri had done. Such a decision would allow it to avoid choosing someone totally controlled by Iranian intelligence like Saif al-Adl, if he indeed remains in Iran like others that it has harbored within the framework of deals it has concluded with Al-Qaeda.
Regardless of who becomes the next leader, Al-Qaeda has become a decentralized organization with no central command like that led by bin Laden in the 90s. The US war on terror forced Al-Qaeda to adapt and decentralize, and its various branches, from Yemen, to Africa to Syria, have operated independently of Zawahiri and the central command for years. This is not likely to change.
What about ISIS?
Al-Qaeda’s primary competitor, ISIS, has hit its rival hard over the past few years. Today, however, ISIS seems far worse off than Al-Qaeda. It lost its so-called state in Syria and Iraq, and it has become nothing more than dispersed small cells that launch attacks against Iraqi forces, Kurdish forces east of the Euphrates, and Syrian regime forces west of the Euphrates.
In Libya, where ISIS established an “Emirate,” it has been exterminated, with only a few cells operating in the south left. The same is true for their presence in Sinai after the Egyptian army launched a campaign against it for years. Its leader in the Sahel was killed only a few months after his most prominent competitor, the leader of Al-Qaeda in the region, was exterminated.
Its Khorasan branch remains the most active, but the major problem ISIS faces there are its clashes with the new rulers of Afghanistan, the Taliban, which is hosting their rivals, Al-Qaeda!