President Joe Biden’s surprise announcement Monday night—that a U.S. drone strike over the weekend killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of al-Qaida and co-architect of the 9/11 terrorist attack—is both more and less significant than it might seem at first glance.
On the one hand, mainly because of the West’s counter-terrorism strategies, al-Qaida is far from the potent global force that it was a decade ago. Its presence has been muted, and Zawahiri himself has hidden so far out of sight that one prominent expert speculated back in November that he might have been killed already.
On the other hand, one fact about this drone strike hints at a much larger finding: It took place in Afghanistan. It turns out Zawahiri was living with his family in a large safehouse in downtown Kabul—meaning he had to be there with the Taliban’s full blessing. This means that, contrary to the Taliban’s assurances, they have been plotting a revival of their alliance with al-Qaida—the alliance that Osama bin Laden formed at the turn of the century and that spawned the attack on the World Trade Center.
It may be that Biden’s attack has, for the moment, nipped this alliance in the bud. At the very least, Bruce Hoffman, senior fellow for counterterrorism at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me, “It sends a message to the Taliban that we know what they’re up to” and that further entanglements will prompt more attacks.
In his brief televised speech, Biden said that U.S. intelligence had discovered Zawahiri’s whereabouts early this year. Since then, counterterrorism teams have been planning the operation. Just one week ago, Biden said, conditions were deemed optimal. On Sunday morning, at around 6 a.m., a CIA-operated drone fired two Hellfire missiles at the building’s balcony, where Zawahiri was standing, killing him but, according to the White House, causing no other casualties. (AP reported that intelligence assets on the ground confirmed his death.)
Zawahiri was Osama bin Laden’s deputy at the time of the 2001 attacks on the United States as well as 10 years later, when President Barack Obama ordered the deadly raid on bin Laden’s lair in Pakistan. It was only natural that Zawahiri succeeded bin Laden as al-Qaida’s leader. From that point, the organization lost much of its potency, splitting into quasi-autonomous franchises that emphasized local operations. Some saw Zawahiri as a weak, uncharismatic leader; others considered him effective under the circumstances, crediting him with at least holding the terrorist organization together.
Either way, several nations’ intel and counterterrorism agencies have hunted for Zawahiri, who was instrumental in the planning of 9/11 and other terrorist attacks against Americans. In his televised speech, Biden said he hoped the families of those Americans would consider the weekend’s killing as “one more measure of closure.” He also said the killing should serve notice that “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.”
Biden also took the drone strike as vindication of his troop-withdrawal from Afghanistan. He said at the time that, even without troops on the ground, the U.S. could prevent al-Qaida and other terrorist groups from using the country as a safe haven. This weekend, the U.S. took one step toward doing just that.
At the same time, it is worrisome that Zawahiri was given safe haven to begin with. Bruce Riedel, a former CIA terrorism analyst now at the Brookings Institution, said in an email Monday, “It is very disturbing but not surprising that he was hiding in a house owned by the Taliban.” Zawahiri had longtime connections with the Haqqani network, a jihadist group with strong ties to Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI. “This raises serious questions,” Riedel said, “about what the ISI is doing with al-Qaida” and about what both might be doing with the Taliban.
By authorizing this weekend’s attack, Biden may have weakened those alliances and slowed down whatever they might have been plotting, but it’s unlikely that he shut them down altogether.