On the 1st of August, US President Joe Biden announced in a speech the assassination of notorious Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri (71) in Afghanistan. The US President said: “Now, justice has been delivered.”
President Biden’s speech rings as a key victory for his administration, much in the same way President Obama’s did for the killing of Zawahiri’s friend and partner and Al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden, as well as President Trump’s did for the killing of ISIS’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The two missile strikes which killed Zawahiri had been eagerly awaited in Washington since his key role in the September 11 attacks and come almost a whole year after the 2021 US withdrawal from Afghanistan – the operations had been pushed forwards by the Biden administration in April, when intelligence gathered showed Zawahiri had been moved to a safe house with his wife, daughter and grandchildren,
There has been criticism in the US and elsewhere that the messy US withdrawal from Afghanistan would only embolden the Taliban to shelter Al-Qaeda and that Afghanistan would turn into a safe haven or launchpad for terrorists opposing the US and its allies. However, this operation does demonstrate the US has maintained the willingness and capability to militarily engage targets in Afghanistan. The Biden administration has previously said when US interests were threatened, the US would still conduct operations in Afghanistan after the withdrawal.
The US will evaluate the Taliban’s role in facilitating Zawahiri and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan after it emerged that Haqqani Network Taliban members were involved in the relocation of Zawahiri’s family from the safe house after the strikes. However, the Taliban have unsurprisingly denied being aware of Al-Qaeda Zawahiri’s presence after he was killed in Kabul. The Taliban said the United States had “invaded our territory” with the drone strikes, adding that any such operations would lead to negative consequences for the US.
Zawahiri’s demise is likely to cause significant organizational issues for Al-Qaeda, as his successor is not yet known and he was known to be particularly instrumental in the broader strategizing of militant groups.
Who was Al-Qaeda’s Ayman Al-Zawahiri?
Zawahiri was an extraordinarily dangerous man and was best known for masterminding the highly complex and devastating September 11 terror attacks that killed nearly three thousand innocent people. He also masterminded attacks on the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998 and the attack on US NAVY ship USS Cole in 2000.
A revolutionary terrorist even during his teen years, Zawahiri was involved with jihadist terror cells. In 1979, he went on to form the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group, which was responsible for the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
With his physician background, Zawahiri had been treating injured mujahideen fighters during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan when he met Osama bin Laden and since became a close friend and ally.
He was majorly responsible for orchestrating the formation of global militant networks and improving the operational skills of militant groups, especially Al-Qaeda. This made him a real threat to global peace, even if hidden away in Afghanistan, where he was believed to still possess directive powers within Al-Qaeda which he had received when Osama bin Laden was killed.
What this means for Pakistan and the region
Pakistan is staring into the abyss; the risk of economic default is an unfortunate reality, while domestic political divisions are worsening Pakistan’s chances of recovery. More related to Zawahiri, Islamist jihadism and Afghanistan, Pakistan faces a worsening problem from the Taliban’s close allies Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan – a Pakistan-based Islamist group with deep ties with the Taliban and shared ideological views with other jihadist groups such as Al-Qaeda.
The assassination of Zawahiri wasn’t merely a simple US drone operation, but one that required third-party cooperation in the form of airspace access, as Afghanistan is landlocked. Iran’s frayed relationship with the US means they were likely not involved in this operation, however that could be very different for their neighbour Pakistan, who also shares a border with Afghanistan and have significant security concerns over Afghan-based terrorism.
Pakistan-US relations are facing difficulties, largely as a result of former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s relentless tirades against the US and support for Islamist jihadist groups like the Taliban. The US distanced itself from cooperating with Khan, whose administration had lambasted US President Joe Biden for refusing to call Imran Khan. Since then, Imran Khan, his party and loyalists have manufactured claims of a conspiracy involving Pakistan’s current government and its Army Chief wanting to place Pakistan under the control of the US.
If Pakistan helped facilitate the US strike that led to Zawahiri’s death, it could signal renewed cooperation between the United States and Pakistan. Pakistan’s military may believe this could see an increased chance that the US could pressure the IMF into delivering on its promise of a bailout package for struggling Pakistan. There has already been somewhat of an improvement in Pakistan-US relations since Khan’s ouster. Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto visited the US in May as did Director General of Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Lt. General Nadeem Anjum. While Pakistan enjoys a trade surplus with the United States, the US struggles to see Pakistan’s relevance beyond the realm of security, so these visits and General Bajwa’s lobbying efforts were certainly important for a nearly bankrupt Pakistan that sees US security cooperation as a tool to receive IMF funding.
Another key point is that US cooperation with Pakistan on security issues in Afghanistan would help Pakistan secure their interests far more easily. US military and intelligence support, as well as turning a blind eye to Pakistani military operations in and outside Pakistan could be extremely useful for Pakistan.
Pakistan’s Army Chief General Bajwa has made significant efforts to improve Pakistan’s relationship with the US for both economic and security reasons, but these efforts are seen in Pakistan as a way to help facilitate Pakistan’s slavery to the US. Ex-Prime Minister Khan said about these efforts: “If America helps us in the current situation, what will it demand in return for help? I fear that the security of the country will be weakened.” Imran Khan is implying that General Bajwa’s efforts for securing funding will create a conflict-like situation on the Afghan border and inside Pakistan – tying this into a broader conspiracy theory of Pakistani military servitude to the US and neglecting his government’s role in sending Pakistan to near-bankruptcy. Without loans from the IMF – and Gulf allies of Pakistan – the country will face further difficulties, requiring even more security-oriented efforts from Pakistan to work with the US and other international lenders on their terms.
Shireen Mazari, one of Khan’s close confidantes and a member of his PTI party was not pleased that global terrorist Zawahiri was killed – despite his group’s role and cooperation in the deaths of countless Pakistanis. She suggested that Imran Khan was removed in a conspiracy involving Pakistan Army and the current government so that Pakistan could serve US interests.
Pakistan faces a war-like situation on its western front, which was created by the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan, which was hugely supported by Imran Khan who now has widespread support in Pakistan. For the first time since Pakistan’s successful counterinsurgency operations in the tribal belt which started in 2014, Tehrik-i-Taliban militants roam freely in Pakistan’s tribal belt and are being facilitated and celebrated by some local elements there. Pakistani soldiers are no longer afforded this freedom of movement and operations in Waziristan; Imran Khan’s Pakistan Army-US servitude narrative has worsened the situation for Pakistani soldiers, which would see them as sitting ducks for militants. The TTP threat is growing in Pakistan and the Pakistani military is trying to seek as much help as possible in dealing with this threat – including very controversially from the US.
Imran Khan and his partners have created a narrative that paints a bailout for Pakistan’s desperate economy as a bad thing for Pakistan – the opposite view is, just like his role in creating the conditions for a resurgence in terrorism and blocking every plan to combat it effectively, he is attempting to leave Pakistan’s economy that his party damaged severely with no chance of recovery that he won’t use for political purposes. The army chief Bajwa is keen to secure an IMF bailout and Pakistan’s security interests on the western front alongside the US, but Shehbaz Sharif and his government are so far incapable of taking bold, selfless decisions on both Afghanistan-based terrorism and Pakistan’s economy due to fears of Imran Khan’s momentum and ability to create narratives that would weaken his government and party’s chances of securing victory in the next election.