Reflections on the Death of Ayman al-Zawahiri
President Biden is right this evening to emphasize the importance of delivering justice to Ayman al-Zawahiri. It is clear that this was the result of months of patient intelligence work and the ability to act on that with extraordinary precision.
Zawahiri had great credibility in the jihadi movement going back to his opposition to the Egyptian government years ago. He contributed a strategic perspective to complement bin Laden’s charisma (which Zawahiri lacked).
In recent years, I would characterize him as retaining respect within the movement but not a great deal of authority. Much of the authority, and actual capability, had flowed to al-Qaeda affiliates in places like Yemen, Syria, and parts of north and sub-Saharan Africa—all of them operating, I believe, with minimal direction from central authority, which had lost among other things the ability to support them financially. So his death does not dramatically impact the leadership of al-Qaeda, which is now so widely distributed.
Where Zawahiri might have mattered most was in brokering a permissive environment for an al-Qaeda revival in Afghanistan, which may have accounted for his presence there.
The fact that he was killed in the heart of Kabul shows that Taliban leaders are once again welcoming jihadist groups, or at least al-Qaeda, contradicting their counterterrorism pledges. They probably view al-Qaeda as an ally against the Islamic State, which is much stronger, larger, and richer—and opposed to the Taliban government.
The success of the operation is a testament to the unrelenting focus at the CIA on terrorism over the past 20 years; it never became an on-again, off-again thing. To borrow a line from an old James Bond movie theme song, “nobody does it better.” This is very hard, detail-oriented work that relies on experience, precise intelligence, refined judgment, timing, and unremitting dedication. That’s not cheerleading for old colleagues. It’s simply stating a fact.