President Joe Biden has announced the killing of the leader of al-Qaeda, Aiman al-Zawahri, in a drone strike. Zawahri was central to the founding of al-Qaeda, the intellectual and organisational force behind the group, key to the decision to attack US targets in east Africa, the Gulf, New York and Washington DC, and deputy and successor to Osama bin Laden. He was killed right in the centre of Kabul, in a house reported to belong to the Taleban’s acting interior minister, Serajuddin Haqqani. Hosting the al-Qaeda leader would appear a clear breach of Taleban commitments in its February 2020 Doha agreement with the US. AAN’s Kate Clark looks at Zawahri’s life and the possible repercussions of his death.A still file image from a video released by al-Qaeda’s media arm as-Sahab and obtained on 8 June 2011 courtesy of the Site Intelligence Group shows the now late Aiman al-Zawahri in characteristic finger-wagging mode as he gives a eulogy for slain al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a video released on jihadist forums. Photo: Site Intelligence Group/AFP.
Aiman Zawahri, an obituary for whom can be found at the end of this report, was killed by two hellfire missiles fired from a drone at 06:18 local time on Sunday, 31 July, according to US officials quoted by Reuters. One of the officials said Zawahri was targeted as he came onto the balcony of the mansion where he was living, in the Sherpur neighbourhood. US intelligence, the official said, had first identified Zawahri’s wife, daughter and her children as having been relocated to the house in Kabul, and later that Zawahri himself was living there as well.
Once Zawahiri arrived at the location, we are not aware of him ever leaving the safe house,” the official said. He was identified multiple times on the balcony, where he was ultimately struck. He continued to produce videos from the house and some may be released after his death…
US President Joe Biden announced the killing of Zawahri in a televised address to the American nation (transcript here). He said he hoped it would “bring one more measure of closure” to those who had lost family and friends in al-Qaeda’s attacks on New York and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001. It appeared that Biden also wanted to compensate for the debacle of the chaotic and unconditional withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in August 2021, which had paved the way for the Taleban takeover:
When I ended our military mission in Afghanistan almost a year ago, I made the decision that after 20 years of war, the United States no longer needed thousands of boots on the ground in Afghanistan to protect America from terrorists who seek to do us harm.
And I made a promise to the American people that we’d continue to conduct effective counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and beyond.
Reports of some sort of strike emerged quickly on Sunday. The Taleban initially said a rocket had been fired and hit an empty house in Sherpur, leaving no casualties (see defence ministry spokesman quoted by Kharma Press). On Monday 1 August, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed tweeted that, after investigation, the authorities had confirmed the attack was by a US drone. He condemned the strike, arguing that, whatever the motivation, it was “a clear violation of international principles and the Doha Agreement.” Yet, hosting Zawahri would seem to be a evident breach of that agreement, signed by the Taleban and the US on 29 February 2020, which committed the US to withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan and in return, the Taleban/Islamic Emirate to:
Prevent any group or individual, including al-Qa’ida, from using the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.
…will not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qa’ida, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.
…will send a clear message that those who pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies have no place in Afghanistan, and will instruct members of the [Taleban] not to cooperate with groups or individuals threatening the security of the United States and its allies.
…will prevent any group or individual in Afghanistan from threatening the security of the United States and its allies, and will prevent them from recruiting, training, and fundraising and will not host them in accordance with the commitments in this agreement.
Yet, the Taleban were hosting the leader of al-Qaeda in the centre of Kabul and also, US officials say Zawahri was making propaganda videos at the house. That may have included his most recent from April 2022 praising the Indian woman, Muskan Khan, for wearing hijab despite a ban in her home province and the jeers of Hindu extremists (see AP report on the video here).
Following Biden’s announcement, there have been no further statements from the Taleban, but one important allegation has emerged, as reported by Associated Press (AP): “The house Zawahiri was in when he was killed was owned by a top aide to senior Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, according to a senior intelligence official.” The allegation has been repeated by “a Taleban official,” speaking to Radio Azadi on condition of anonymity: editor Frud Bezhan tweeted that the official said:
Security was tight around the house, located in #Kabul‘s Sherpur area…. Only two senior Taliban officials — Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani and Defense Minister Mullah Yaqoob Mujahid — visited the house.
Whether or not Zawahri was living in a house owned – or probably more accurately – expropriated by Serajuddin Haqqani, it seems inconceivable that he was not in Kabul at the invitation and with the full knowledge of the Emirate. If other senior leaders did not know that Zawahri was living in the capital, that would signify a dysfunction at the heart of their administration and a failure of the intelligence agency, given the significance of the man and the threat his very presence posed to the Taleban state.
Possible consequences of the killing
The UN’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team had already alleged that the Taleban were harbouring violent jihadist organisations on Afghan soil (its sources are UN member states). Its latest report published on 11 July said that “International terrorist organizations based in the country view the victory of the Taliban as a motivating factor for disseminating their propaganda in the neighbouring regions of Central and South Asia, and globally.” At the Great Gathering of Afghanistan’s Ulema, which was held in Kabul from 30 June to 2 July, Taleban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada had also said the Taleban’s victory was a source of pride not only for Afghans but also for the faithful the world over. He declared his intention, with the good counsel of the Afghan ulema, to spread ‘our sharia’ to mujahedin everywhere.
As to al-Qaeda/Taleban relations, the Monitoring Team’s report said the leadership “reportedly plays an advisory role with the Taliban, and the groups remain close,” and Zawahri himself had “increased outreach to Al-Qaida supporters with a number of video and audio messages, including his own statement promising that Al-Qaida was equipped to compete with [the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant], in a bid to be recognized again as the leader of a global movement.” The Monitoring Team said al-Qaeda “enjoys greater freedom in Afghanistan under Taliban rule but confines itself to advising and supporting the de facto authorities.”
Strangely, President Biden did not mention the Taleban in his address, not even to blame them for harbouring al-Qaeda. His Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, however, did accuse the Taleban of having “grossly violated” the Doha Agreement. Another official quoted by The New York Times also called Zawahri’s presence a “clear violation” of the agreement, but, said the newspaper, “it was not evident what action, if any, Mr. Biden would take against the Taliban as a result.” Biden did issue a warning:
And to those around the world who continue to seek to harm the United States, hear me now: We will always remain vigilant, and we will act. And we will always do what is necessary to ensure the safety and security of Americans at home and around the globe.
From the Taleban came not so much a warning as an attempt to cast the drone strike as an attack on mutual interests. Such actions, spokesman Mujahed said in his Monday tweet, “are a repetition of the failed experiences of the past 20 years and are against the interests of the USA, Afghanistan and the region.” Repeating such actions, he said, “will damage the existing opportunities.”
Just how dangerous Zawahri was is argued over. A BBC biography described him as “a remote and marginal figure” in recent years, “only occasionally issuing messages” and with “relatively little sway as new groups and movements such as Islamic State have become increasingly influential.” US officials, however, have insisted that Zawahri was still a threat. After his killing, reported AP, the White House “underscored that al-Zawahri had continued to be a dangerous figure,” continuing to “’provide strategic direction’” including urging attacks on the US, even while in hiding, urging “members of the terror network that the United States remained al-Qaida’s ‘primary enemy’.”
The UN Monitoring Committee thought it unlikely that al-Qaeda and its affiliates would seek to mount direct attacks outside Afghanistan in the near term “owing to a lack of capability” and restraint by the Taleban. However, “Al-Qaida is considered a significant threat to international security over the long term, especially relative to [the Islamic State in Khorasan Province], which poses the greater threat in the short and medium term.” Moreover, al-Qaeda’s influence, it said, “depends on having a safe haven, improved communications and resources to distribute.” The Taleban’s victory in August 2021 must have boosted al-Qaeda morale, as well as hopes for a second period of glory. Sunday’s drone strike has suddenly made Afghanistan a much less safe haven for al-Qaeda and other groups and dented their prospects for regrouping and growing again in influence and activity.
Whether the leader of al-Qaeda was dangerous or might have become dangerous, the fact that he was killed on Afghan soil in the heart of Taleban-controlled Afghanistan in a house reportedly owned by the Emirate’s acting interior ministry will surely have consequences for the Taleban and for Afghanistan.
If the US had been looking for a partner after August 2021 that could just look after its most basic core interests in Afghanistan – which are not girls’ education or a free press or an inclusive government, but ensuring the country would not again be a base for internationally-minded terrorists threatening US security interests – it will just have concluded that the Taleban cannot be that partner. Instead, the Taleban appear to have decided once again to throw their lot in with people whom no American administration can stomach. If they had handed Zawahri over, they might now be on the road to international recognition. Instead, they have made the same choice as Mullah Omar did in the years up to 2001, of looking after their ‘guests’, or at least of only trying half-heartedly to get rid of them, or in this case (possibly) of not making a decision on what to do about this most dangerous of guests.
As well as international recognition now appearing to be absolutely off the table, there could be other consequences. In the wake of the now indisputable evidence that the Taleban have been harbouring al-Qaeda, it may become more difficult for the US and other donors to contemplate giving Taleban-controlled Afghanistan anything more than humanitarian aid. The current plan (details and analysis here) to funnel money via the World Bank, UN agencies and NGOs for healthcare and other development spending could falter. The drone strike on Zawahri comes off the back of the Taleban’s stony refusal to countenance other demands from western donors – as well as countries in the region and many of their own citizens – to let older girls go to school, women to work, and to form an inclusive government.
In turn, the Taleban will surely also be anxious about the willingness and ability of the US to conduct other armed strikes on Afghan soil. The threat from the air, which caused so many deaths to Taleban during the insurgency, is not over. “You know,” said Biden, “it [Afghanistan] can’t be a launching pad against the United States. We’re going to see to it that won’t happen.” Emirate officials may also be pondering the implications of this comment by a US official speaking to AP: “a CIA ground team and aerial reconnaissance conducted after the drone strike confirmed al-Zawahiri’s death.”
It is not a promising prospect for Afghan citizens contemplating their future. They were already living in a collapsed economy with borders that are difficult to cross and must now be wondering whether the Taleban have just managed to confirm to the West that their country should remain isolated and treated as a pariah. At the same time, they must also fear that their rulers will become more edgy, more suspicious and more dangerous.
A postscript: who lives where since August 2021
And finally, for those interested in where Afghan elites live, it is interesting that Serajuddin Haqqani appears to own a mansion in Sherpur, while other senior figures in the Emirate have been named during the reporting of the drone strike as living nearby, including the interior ministry’s chief of staff, Mawlawi Zainullah and Kabul chief of police Mawlawi Hamza (see this Twitter thread by Afghan journalist, Bilal Sarwary).
For centuries, we wrote in 2010, Sherpur “was part of the finely woven agricultural fabric surrounding Kabul. It was only in 2003, that the traditional mud houses, small pieces of farmland and a historical garden were all bulldozed.” The land was seized in September 2003 from poor Afghans by the Republic’s first defence minister, General Fahim Khan, the leader of the Shura-ye Nizar faction of the Northern Alliance which had captured Kabul after the Taleban fled. Fahim distributed the prime real estate to his cronies and fellow cabinet ministers, both commanders and civilians – then finance minister Ashraf Ghani was a notable exception in refusing a plot on principal, saying “when land is taken like it was in Kabul a few days ago, this creates a crisis of governance.” Fahim’s ally and Kabul chief of police, Abdul Basir Salangi, himself led the bulldozing and dispossession of the poor people’s mud-built homes in an unannounced operation which caused injuries and misery and destitution for its victims. Fahim argued the homes had been built illegally on Ministry of Defence land in defiance of the Kabul City master plan.
The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission bravely spoke out about the scandal. However, ISAF largely and diplomats almost entirely stood by, having decided it was an internal matter. The then UN Secretary General’s Special Representative, Lakhdar Brahimi, even reproved the UN Special Rapporteur on Housing and Land Rights, Miloon Kothari, for publishing the names of those who took plots. It was an early indication that corruption would thrive in the Republic and its international backers would do little to stop it or protect citizens from the abusive actions of those they had helped bring to power.
Today, we see that senior Emirate officials have taken over the homes which had formerly been occupied by the previous elite. This is something of a tradition when Afghanistan changes hands: the mujahedin commanders who seized homes in the equally upmarket Wazir Akbar Khan district, which neighbours Sherpur, when they captured Kabul in 1992, saw their houses taken over by Taleban, Arab and Pakistani commanders when the Taleban, in turn, captured the capital in 1996, only to seize them once again in 2001. It would be interesting to see who is living in those homes now.
Annex: Obituary for Aiman al- Zawahri
Aiman Muhammed Rabi Zawahri was born in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, on 19 June 1951 into a prominent family; his grandfather had been the grand imam of al-Azhar, widely considered to be the centre of Sunni Islamic scholarship, while an uncle had served as the Arab League’s first secretary-general. His father was a university professor of medicine.
Zawahri was first arrested while still at school, for membership of the world’s oldest Islamist organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood. He went on to study to become a doctor and a surgeon and, in 1972, to join the more militant and more violent Islamist group, Islamic jihad. After the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981, he was one of hundreds to be arrested and tortured by Egypt’s security services; like others before him, notably Sayed Qutb, the revolutionary theorist of violent jihad, Zawahri’s torture reportedly persuaded him of the need for even more extreme and violent action in the cause of establishing an ‘Islamic state’.
Zawahri left Egypt in 1985 after a spell in prison, travelling eventually to Pakistan and Afghanistan where he worked as a doctor during the mujahedin’s fight against the Soviet invasion. In 1993, he took over the leadership of Islamic Jihad and led a fresh violent campaign to topple the Egyptian government. It is thought, a BBC biography says, that he “travelled around the world during the 1990s in search of sanctuary and sources of funding.” Eventually, in 1997, he came to Jalalabad where he joined his old comrade from the 1980s, Osama bin Laden.
On 23 February 1998, Zawahri, bin Laden and three leaders of other violent jihadist groups issued a religious ruling, a fatwa, ordering all Muslims to take up armed jihad against “Jews and Crusaders,” asserting that “to kill the Americans and their allies – civilians and military is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible.” (Arabic text can be read here; translation here). Later that year, on 23 August, al-Qaeda carried out the bombings of two US embassies in east Africa. At that time, Zawahri and bin Laden were still being hosted by the mujahedin faction, Hezb-e Islami Khales, but from September 1998, after the Taleban captured Jalalabad, they became guests of the Islamic Emirate. Zawahri was later to be a key figure behind the planning of the attacks on New York and the Pentagon in 2001.
Aiman al-Zawahri was officially number two in the al-Qaeda hierarchy, second only to Osama bin Laden, but always very much a co-equal, key to al-Qaeda strategy and organisation and with his Islamic Jihad Egyptian followers having formed a core component of al-Qaeda. AP reported:
The 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon made bin Laden America’s Enemy No. 1. But he likely could never have carried it out without his deputy. Bin Laden provided al-Qaida with charisma and money, but al-Zawahri brought tactics and organizational skills needed to forge militants into a network of cells in countries around the world.
After the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, al-Qaeda members fled or were killed or captured. According to AP, it was Zawahri who ensured the organisation’s survival:
He rebuilt its leadership in the Afghan-Pakistan border region and installed allies as lieutenants in key positions. He also reshaped the organization from a centralized planner of terror attacks into the head of a franchise chain. He led the assembling of a network of autonomous branches around the region, including in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, North Africa, Somalia, Yemen and Asia. Over the next decade, al-Qaida inspired or had a direct hand in attacks in all those areas as well as Europe, Pakistan and Turkey, including the 2004 train bombings in Madrid and the 2005 transit bombings in London.
Zawahri became al-Qaeda leader after bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad in Pakistan on 2 May 2011. It was a natural succession, but AP says, Zawahri was a very different leader to bin Laden and always a more divisive figure:
Many militants described the soft-spoken bin Laden in adoring and almost spiritual terms. In contrast, al-Zawahri was notoriously prickly and pedantic. He picked ideological fights with critics within the jihadi camp, wagging his finger scoldingly in his videos. Even some key figures in al-Qaida’s central leadership were put off, calling him overly controlling, secretive and divisive.
As the centre of violent ‘jihad’ moved to the Middle East following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, after the Arab uprisings of the next decade, in which people demanded democracy and accountability, and especially after the emergence of the Islamic State and its slick, horror-filled propaganda, al-Qaeda lost ground in the struggle for pre-eminence among violent jihadists. The victory of the Taleban in Afghanistan in 2021 was a boost to al-Qaeda, a chance to flourish again. That is now in doubt, given the apparent US readiness to kill militants. As to who might take over the leadership, the UN sanctions committee commented in early July that al-Qaeda “currently does not appear to have a clear leadership succession plan.”
Edited by Roxanna Shapour
This article was last updated on 4 Aug 2022