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A fortnight before the first anniversary of the Taliban’s triumphant return to Kabul (August 15, 2021), the United States killed Al Qaeda chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a drone attack in the night of August 1, 2022, signalling its intent to undo the discredited Doha deal, sooner rather than later. The Egyptian-born al-Zawahiri, a surgeon by training, is survived by two wives and seven children, who were unhurt in the attack.
Al-Zawahiri, widely considered the mastermind behind the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US, assumed charge of the Al Qaeda after Osama bin Laden’s assassination. His death ended a 21-year manhunt as President Joe Biden announced on television, “Now justice has been delivered and this terrorist leader is no more.” He added, “We make it clear again tonight, that no matter how long it takes, no matter where you hide, if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out.”
In an uncanny similarity with Al Qaeda founder, Osama bin Laden, who was found living in Pakistan’s Abbottabad cantonment area, al-Zawahiri was living in the posh Wazir Akbar Khan colony that once served as Kabul’s diplomatic enclave, until the Taliban took over last year. It is in close proximity to the Afghan national government buildings. Most Taliban leaders now live in the vicinity.
Experts believe that the residence of the Al Qaeda chief was hit by two missiles, the warhead-less Hellfire R9X. The US-made Hellfire R9X is equipped with razor-like blades that slice through its target but do not explode, according to Pakistani journalist Jawad Yousafzai.
Just as Afghanistan air space was used to launch the operation against Osama bin Laden, Pakistani air space was most likely used to eliminate the Al Qaeda chief. So far, however, Pakistan has not issued any statement on the matter.
Over the past year, the Taliban has claimed several times that it had severed its ties with Al Qaeda, but it is now evident that it was providing a safe haven to Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Afghan sources told the media that the building in which al-Zawahiri was killed is owned by the Taliban’s deputy leader and interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani. The latter’s son and son-in-law were also killed in the drone strike. Other sources said that 12 Arab members of Al Qaeda and several high-ranking Taliban officials were also killed in this attack.
Security was immediately strengthened around the house, and only two senior Taliban officials, Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani and Defense Minister Mullah Yaqoob Mujahid, visited the residence that is now completely cordoned off.
While confirming the death of al-Zawahiri, President Biden said, “We are going to make sure that nothing else happens, you know, that it can’t be a launching pad against the United States; we are going to see to that won’t happen.”
Analysts surmise that the attack on al-Zawahiri suggests intelligence cooperation between Washington and Islamabad, in return for a speedy deal with the International Monetary Fund to extend a loan of US$ 1.2 billion to Pakistan to enable it to avoid a debt default, and also help Pakistan to exit the Financial Action Task Force list.
The unexpected attack is a sharp turn around from President Biden’s justification for the US’s hasty and ill-planned withdrawal from the country last year. The White House then issued a statement, “Look, let’s put this thing in perspective here. What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point with Al Qaeda gone? We went to Afghanistan for the express purpose of getting rid of al Qaeda in Afghanistan, as well as – as well as getting rid of Osama bin Laden. And we did.”
Now, a fortnight away from its first anniversary in power, Ayman al Zawahiri has been killed in Kabul. A staunch radical, al-Zawahiri was convicted of conspiracy in the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat; he later merged his organization, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, with Bin Laden’s to expand its area of influence.
Rahmatullah Nabil, a former Director of the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan, claimed in a series of tweets that General Bajwa and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) shared the information about al-Zawahiri’s location in an attempt to restore ties with Washington. He pointed out that in the past few months, the son of Osama Bin Laden and the son of al-Zawahiri had held several meetings with the Taliban leadership in Kabul.
Afghan sources point to tensions between the Haqqani network and the Doha faction. Sirajuddin Haqqani reportedly suspects that when Mullah Yaqoob visited Qatar a month ago, he possibly leaked Zawahiri’s whereabouts to the US.
Abdul Ghani Baradar, acting first Deputy Prime Minister of Afghanistan and Mullah Yaqoob, defence minister and de facto second deputy head of state, have been keen to improve relations with the US after the Doha deal to gain recognition from the international community. They are uneasy with the growing power of Sirajuddin Haqqani. The assassination of the Al Qaeda chief in the heart of Kabul suggests that events may be moving towards a final showdown with the Taliban. The leadership has been given the message that it is not safe anywhere. Its days could well be numbered.
The key issue is whether Washington will sponsor a coup against the Taliban, using the Baradar-Yaqoob faction, so as to return to Afghanistan by invitation of the powers-that-be. The local population, especially girls and women, detest the Taliban because of its continuing atrocities against civilians and persecution of former employees of the Ashraf Ghani regime, extraction of food and money from locals, and ban on education and employment of women.
Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the fact that the Al Qaeda leader was in Afghanistan “reflects the total failure of the Biden administration’s policy towards that country,” the New York Times reported. His counterpart on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, said the strike “serves as a reminder the American people were lied to by President Biden. Al Qaeda is not ‘gone’ from Afghanistan as Biden falsely claimed a year ago.”
However, President Trump’s special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who negotiated the Doha deal, claimed that the strike on al-Zawahiri proved that the US can protect its interests against terror threats in Afghanistan without maintaining a large and expensive military presence there.
The presence of al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan is an explicit violation of the Doha agreement, which is now a dead letter. The question is whether President Biden will reverse his withdrawal decision in order to check his falling popularity at home. Democrats hope that the strike could somewhat revive President Biden’s sharply declining popularity and help the Party in the forthcoming midterm elections.
The Taliban in a statement condemned the attack and called it a violation of the Doha agreement between Washington and the Taliban.
He was killed by covert support of Pakistan establishment. Let Pakistan come to senses and clean it’s name. People want peace and stability.
Can’t we go in for similar strikes against our enemies?
Very well summarised
Sandhya Jain is an expert on Afghanistan – Balochistan and writes incisively on that region’s politics and problems.
It will have to be see whether the assisination of Zawahiri by the United States helps in reducing the influence of Al Qaida in this volatile region or escalates into another bloody feud between Al Qaida and the United States.