A US drone strike in Afghanistan this weekend killed the incumbent al-Qaida Chief and the man who help Osama Bin Laden plot the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the United States and helped Al-Qaida survive after the assassination of Bin Laden in 2011. US President Joe Biden confirmed the news in a televised statement, saying that by finding and striking al-Zawahiri, the US was ensuring that Afghanistan under the Taliban would never become a haven for terrorists who plot an attack on the rest of the world.
The Al-Qaida leader evaded the US capture for over two decades after the suicide airliner attacks that in many ways changed America and its relations with the rest of the world. Al-Zawahiri was probably the most wanted terrorist in the world before his eventual death – an ageing man in glasses, slightly smiling and shown invariably beside the Al-Qaida founder Osama Bin Laden in photos.
After years of quietly assembling the suicide attackers, the funds and plans to carry out the 9/11 attacks, al-Zawahiri and his lieutenants also made sure that Al-Qaida survived the global manhunt that invariably followed the attacks. On the run after 9/11, al-Zawahiri rebuilt the al-Qaida leadership in the Afghan-Pakistan region and was the supreme leader of branches in Iraq, Asia, Yemen and beyond. After the suicide attacks on America, al-Qaida carried out years of attacks in Bali, Mombasa, Riyadh, Jakarta, Istanbul, Madrid, London and beyond. The attacks that killed 52 people in London in 2005 were among the last al-Qaida attacks in the west, as drone strikes, missile launches and counterterror attacks by the US killed several al-Qaida-affiliated fighters and shattered parts of the network.
Ayman al-Zawahiri finally met his end on Sunday when he was killed in a US drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan. US intelligence officials revealed to the media that the CIA had been surveilling the al-Qaida leader for quite some time now. Around sunrise on Sunday, he walked out on the balcony of a house in Kabul and lingered there for a minute. Two Hellfire missiles were shot at him as he stood there.
His presence in Afghanistan was suspected for quite some time, analysts said. The US officials learned that al-Zawahiri’s wife and other family members had moved to a safe house in Kabul recently, and Zawahiri soon followed.
U.S. officials, joined by top leaders all the way up to, eventually, Biden, spent careful months confirming his identity — and his fateful practice of standing alone on that same balcony — and planned the strike.
After two decades of US strikes, al-Qaida is a pretty thin group now. Now that the group’s leader is dead, experts point to an Egyptian, Saif al-Adl, as the most likely candidate to succeed him. Al-Adl has a revered status in the group and his experience, potential and charisma might draw back the al-Qaida defectors who have moved to other groups.
Al-Qaida overall now faces a succession crisis and a shaky future. That includes rivalries against aggressive upstart extremist groups that came into being after 9/11 and also have a presence in Afghanistan.