Ayman al-Zawahiri’s elimination in an American drone attack, while lounging on the balcony of his house in Kabul, closes one chapter. US President Joe Biden proclaimed, like his predecessors did after killing high-value militants, that “now justice has been delivered”. As Al-Qaeda’s ruling head and former deputy of Osama bin Laden, Zawahiri was long sought by the United States for his role in the 9/11 attack.
What does the killing signify in today’s context? First, the house where Zawahiri died is in a prime Kabul locality and allegedly provided by the Haqqani family. Sirajuddin Haqqani is Afghanistan’s interior (home) minister. Bickering has started between the Taliban and the United States over who broke their 2020 Doha agreement. The Afghans allege a drone attack is forbidden under the deal. The US maintains it is the Taliban that reneged on their commitment to deny a free run to militants on territory under their control. Some claim that the Taliban gave sanctuary to Al-Qaeda’s head on the condition that he would not conduct any operations from his residence. However, recent propaganda videos released by Zawahiri would have been shot from his Kabul residence.
Zawahiri, for long, has not had operational control over the globally spread Al-Qaeda networks or affiliates. He was the font which provided inspiration, encouragement and guidance to further the broad objectives of Al-Qaeda. His successor may be a fellow Egyptian, Saif al-Adel.
Zawahiri’s death can cause internal dissensions till the next leader can assert control. How quickly this happens would show whether the terror outfit can continue to exist as a cohesive movement or its affiliates in Africa and elsewhere begin to behave even more independently.
Considering that the US managed to get specific information about Zawahiri’s location indicates either intra-Taliban wrangling or the help of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence or a rival radical group. Sirajuddin Haqqani’s hand in relocating Zawahiri is obvious. An embarrassed Taliban regime may use this to clip the wings of the powerful interior minister, who is seen as an ISI nominee. It is possible that the sidelined moderate Taliban faction is wreaking revenge on the radicals who are holding prize posts.
The Egyptian connection is interesting as Zawahiri represented the line of jihadist thinking propounded by Sayed Qutb in his widely-read book Signposts in the Road. It contains material he smuggled out of jail when incarcerated in Egypt in 1954-64, after returning from the US. After release he was rearrested and tried for treason, using material in that book. He was executed in 1966. Dr Zawahiri in his book Knights Under
the Prophet’s Banner recalled Qutb’s death as follows: “The apparent surface calm concealed an immediate interaction with Sayed Qutb’s ideas and the formation of the nucleus of the modern jihad movement in Egypt”. When Zawahiri met Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden, the two men had bonded immediately. Osama provided charisma and wealth and Zawahiri the intellectual justification for jihad which he imbibed through Qutb’s life and thoughts. Al-Qaeda was a by-product of this union.
Thus, the death of the surviving partner earlier this week ends one saga. Will it inspire more youth to sign up or will Al Qaeda decline as a material threat, remaining merely a powerful idea? For India, the danger is existential. During the first spell of Taliban rule in Kabul from 1996 to 2001, training was imparted to Pakistan-based anti-India jihadis. But the Pakistani military handlers ensured that Kashmir and India did not figure high on Al-Qaeda’s agenda. The reason for this was simple. Pakistan wanted to use terror to blackmail India into accepting Pakistan’s Kashmir agenda. Occasionally, Pakistan during talks with India would imply or even state that while they were not sponsoring terrorism against India, they could curtail it after a Kashmir settlement was reached. If Al-Qaeda had been allowed to list Kashmir as its core agenda, they would not have allowed Pakistan to modulate the use of terrorism. After Zawahiri’s killing, Al-Qaeda may converge more closely with the agenda of India-specific groups like Lashkar-e-Tayyaba or Jaish-e-Mohammed, etc. To deter them, India needs to swiftly restore the political process in Jammu and Kashmir and draw the main players into the political space.
Are Western nations at greater danger from Al Qaeda’s remnants which may want revenge? Advisories have been issued by the United States and all must remain on their guard. India must also remain alert, because of instability and economic distress in Pakistan. That makes it easier for militants to move across to attack India. Pakistan’s former PM Imran Khan has been rabble-rousing the street with anti-American rhetoric. Under the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), when 26/11 Mumbai attack mastermind Sajid Mir was detained in Pakistan, the government was scared to make the news public. If Imran Khan’s success in recent byelections in Pakistan’s Punjab province show a trend, then he may well win the next Parliament election. He had referred to Osama bin Laden as a “martyr”. By that logic, Zawahiri would be no less.
Generally, the killing of high-value militants only secure a short reprieve for the world. They are often deadlier when gone than alive. The biggest setback to Al-Qaeda was not Osama bin Laden’s elimination in 2011 but the democratising Arab Spring of 2010-12, which overthrew dictators running Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. In Syria, the Shia-Sunni divide halted the progress of the wave. It also allowed Al-Qaeda to revive, albeit via assertive new groups like Islamic State. In fact, Zawahiri unsuccessfully tried to stop ISIS from targeting Shias. This illustrates that his successor, lacking his standing as Osama’s companion and conscience-keeper, may find sundry jihadi affiliates very difficult to control or keep on message.
A political churn in Kabul may be the first consequence as the Haqqani network moves with alacrity to cover up evidence of Zawahiri’s presence -- dead or alive. They would seek to silence those they calculate betrayed them, whether in Kabul or Islamabad. If moderates can gain supremacy in Kabul, then Zawahiri may in his death benefit the land that sheltered him. Alternatively, the United States may have managed to cultivate sources in the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP), that wants to replace Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The next few weeks should reveal how the internal dynamics in Afghanistan plays out.