The death of Zawahiri may only have a short-term impact
The article is authored by Soumya Awasthi.
From the podium of the White House, the President of the United States (US) announced that on July 31, 2022, in the US air strike Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Al-Qaeda chief since 2011 was killed in Kabul. The attack on the Zawahiri hideout is vital because of its location in Kabul, a house which was owned by Sirajuddin Haqqani who is the deputy leader of the Taliban. Zawahriri came from a family of Arabian tribals, distinguished Islamic scholars and member of Arab Leagues. This reveals the ideological fanaticism of youth combined with establishing jihadist ideas at an early age. He was inspired by the revoluntionary thoughts of Egyptian scholar Sayyid Qutub’s known work Ma’alim fi-l-Tariq (Milestones) and his Koranic commentary Fi Zilal al-Quran (In the shade of the Quran).
The significance of the counter-terrorism operation comes after one year of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Therefore, America certainly notched a significant success in a tailored operation. There is also an interesting coincidence that the strike happened two months after the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum visited the US and met the US national security advisor Jake Sullivan and Central Intelligence Agency director William J Burns. The bilateral meet was on the pretext of situation Afghanistan and Pakistan’s probable “role” in stabilising the neighbourhood.
Pakistan’s role is significant because of the scheduled Financial Action Task Force (FATF) plenary meeting in October 2022 and the desperation to get off the grey list. Since the time FATF has been strictly monitoring Pakistan and its counter-terrorism programme, the country has faced serious economic hardships with countries like the US and Saudi Arabia. Since Pakistan’s economics is in the doldrums, it became a necessity to once again align its policies as per the US.
Zawahiri a theologian and a surgeon by training turned towards Islamist militancy after killing Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat in 1981 because Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel known as the Camp David Accords. He later went to Pakistan where he acquainted with Osama bin Laden and eventually had a role in series of violent attacks against democracies around the world, including the twin tower attacks of 9/11. In a tribute to Bin Laden, Zawahri vowed to continue attacks on the West and recalled the Saudi militant's threat that "you will not dream of security until we live it as a reality and until you leave the lands of Muslims."
Zawahiri has often tried to inflame passions among Muslims by speaking online on sensitive issues such as US policy in West Asia or Israeli actions against the Palestinians, but his speech was seen as lacking bin Laden's magnetism. It was only in April 2022, that Zawahiri came out with a video addressing the Muslims of India where he raised several issues concerning the Muslim community in India. However, the video was immediately removed from all the social media handles by India’s counter-terrorism team.
Killing of Zawahiri raises some very pertinent questions about the future of terrorism and counter-terrorism. First, Zawahri’s presence in Kabul under the Taliban regime confirms that Afghanistan continues to be the safe haven for terror groups. Second, the point to deliberate is whether the killing of al-Qaeda chief has diminished the strength of the. Well, the argument could be that unlike Laden of al- Qaeda or the Abu Bakar Baghdadi of ISIS, Zawahiri did not have enough charisma, so his killing will not bring about any major changes. However, it could be possible that there will be a momentary pause before the group re-emerges under Saif al-Adel, an explosive expert and former colonel in the Egyptian army could be a possible leader of the group. It is also believed that Saif al-Adel is living in some safe house in West Asia, as al-Qaeda has friends in this region who believe that the US is their common enemy.
Thirdly, the July 31 success should not be celebrated as a conclusion to counter-terrorism. Not just America but the whole world should be cautious of the Sunday strike. The end of the Zawahiri chapter doesn’t mean end to threat of terrorism, it is known to be interminable. It is wait and watch to see what extremes the Taliban may choose to express their fury about the air strike. In fact, look twwards Africa and today’s most deadly franchise of al-Qaeda is al-Shabab in Somalia and other affiliated groups like al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinet which regularly comes out with the magazine Nawa-e-Gazwah-e-Hind which has been in circulation since 2020. The al-Qaeda franchise AQID has reoriented itself from Afghanistan to Kashmir.
Finally, the debate on counter-terrorism suggests that killing of any person in the leadership doesn’t translate into the death of a group, it only has a short-lived impact on the functioning of the group. For the terrorist, jihad never stops. Sometimes such events only become a motivation for coming back stronger and more lethal. Terrorism is constantly metastasizing along with technological and human evolution. Therefore, instead of treating its organs, it is more sensible to treat the loci of the disease. Counter-terrorism should be undertaken in coordination with counter-radicalisation, de-radicalisation and anti-radicalisation. Experts should be trained in a wholistic manner for countering radical ideologies. India, at the moment, is more vulnerable since the US withdrawal in 2021, with an unstable Pakistan and Afghanistan in the neighbourhood. Therefore, for India, it is time to be more vigilant and work in close coordination with all the agencies in and out of India in both bilateral and multilateral forums.
Soumya Awasthi is a PhD scholar, diplomacy and disarmament programme, School of International Studies, JNU and Associate Fellow with Vivekananda International Foundation. She broadly looks at Islam, Afghanistan and terrorism.