President Biden said in a speech to the nation on Monday that Zawahiri’s death — after evading capture for decades — sent a clear message: “It doesn’t matter how long it takes, no matter where you hide, if you pose a threat for our people, the United States will find you and take you out.”
Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda leader, killed at 71
The strike is the most recent successful US operation against al-Qaeda and Islamic State leaders. Biden said Zawahiri’s death should ensure that Afghanistan can no longer become “a safe haven for terrorists” and a “launching pad” for attacks on the United States.
Security experts say the operation shows that the United States is still able to carry out precision strikes in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of troops on the ground last year. On the other hand, it is also emphasizes the apparent willingness of the Taliban to house Al-Qaeda operatives in the region.
Here’s a look at what Zawahiri’s death means for al-Qaeda.
When was Al-Qaeda founded?
Al-Qaeda grew out of battlefield ties forged during the Afghan uprising against the Soviet Union, which was diverted into fighting the West.
Founded in 1988 by Osama bin Laden, the group attracted disgruntled recruits who opposed US support for Israel and the dictatorships in the Middle East.
When the Taliban took power in Afghanistan in 1996, it gave al-Qaeda the sanctuary that enabled it to run training camps and carry out attacks, including 9/11.
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What was Ayman al-Zawahiri’s role in al-Qaeda?
Americans knew him as the leader of al-Qaeda, bin Laden’s bespectacled deputy with a bushy beard. In reality, longtime observers say, he provided the ideological direction, while bin Laden was the public face of the terrorist group.
Zawahiri merged his Egyptian militant group with al-Qaeda in the 1990s. For decades, he served as “the mastermind of attacks on Americans,” Biden said Monday — including the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, which killed 17 American sailors and injured dozens of others, and the bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. that killed hundreds and injured dozens.
“Killing Americans and their allies – civilians and military – is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in every country where it is possible to do it,” Zawahiri wrote in a 1998 screed.
After al-Qaeda’s forced withdrawal from its base in Afghanistan in early 2002, it was largely Zawahiri who led the group’s revival in the lawless tribal area across the border in Pakistan, The Washington Post wrote in an obituary on Monday.
What Happened to Al Qaeda After Bin Laden Was Killed?
When bin Laden was assassinated in 2011, his number 2, Zawahiri, took over.
Although he was the intellectual force behind the terrorist movement, some experts say Zawahiri lacked bin Laden’s charisma. He remained a figurehead, but was unable to prevent the splintering of the Islamist movement in Syria and other conflict zones after 2011.
Its hold on a vast network of affiliates in Africa, Asia and the Middle East had been weakened. The Islamic State terrorist group, which grew out of the Iraqi affiliate of Al-Qaeda, sought to position itself as a more ruthless alternative.
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In his later years, Zawahiri largely eschewed public opinion and chaired al-Qaeda during a time of decline, with most of the group’s founders dead or in hiding.
At the time of the US withdrawal last August, analysts described al-Qaeda in Afghanistan as “a skeleton of its former self,” after two decades of conflict and counter-terrorism operations. A United Nations report in July estimated that there are still up to 400 al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan.
Some security experts feared a restart of al-Qaeda under the Taliban. At the time of his death, US intelligence indicated that instead of hiding, Zawahiri lived with his family in central Kabul in a highly secured residential area that is home to many high-ranking Taliban figures.
What will happen to al-Qaeda now?
Analysts say al-Qaeda has adapted to losing leaders in the past, with new figures taking its place. Today, however, the group is splintered, with branches and branches all over the world, from West Africa to India. The question remains whether those groups will focus on local conflicts or unite for more global ambitions.
Charles Lister, a terrorism expert at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said al-Qaeda “is now facing an acute succession crisis.” Senior leader Saif al-Adel is technically next in line to take the helm, but he is based in Iran, which has led affiliates to question his credibility in the past, Lister wrote Monday. His potential ascension could be the “death knell” to Al-Qaeda’s aspirations as a global organization as affiliates deepen their independence from the group, Lister said.
Al-Qaeda has committed no major terrorist attacks in the United States or Europe in recent years, after bombings that killed 52 people in London in 2005. Some attackers were inspired by al-Qaeda, such as a Saudi military trainee who killed three American sailors at a US base in Florida in December 2019. A knife-wielding attacker who fatally stabbed a man and a woman in an attack near London that same year. Bridge, was previously a member of an al-Qaeda-inspired cell.
Claire Parker and Joby Warrick contributed to this report.