In a counterterrorism drone strike in the skies over Afghanistan, the CIA has killed al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri. A coordinator of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Zawahiri took part in planning, coordinating, and supplying the needs of the 9/11 terrorists. The saga has now come full circle with the elimination of Zawahiri, where it began. US forces engaged the Taliban, which harbored the al Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan just two months after the attack on New York and Washington, DC. But the organization’s key figures escaped in 2001. So, some poetic, albeit perverse, justice has been served. Though Zawahiri eluded retribution for over 20 years, death was visited on the jihadist literally out of the blue when two hellfire missiles launched by an unmanned aerial vehicle ended the existence of the most wanted terrorist.
Drone Strike Vindicates Bush
“And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon,” former United States President George W. Bush, standing on the rubble that was the World Trade Center, told the American people. And true to his word, albeit a while in coming, the long arm United States justice found its mark. “The United States government, on July 30 at 9:48 p.m. ET, and 6:18 a.m. Kabul time, undertook a ‘precision counterterrorism operation,’ killing Al Zawahiri, who served as Osama bin Laden’s deputy during the 9/11 attacks, and as his successor in 2011, following bin Laden’s death,” Fox News reported.
When members of the US Navy seals killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, Zawahiri was elevated to the leadership of the al Qaeda worldwide terrorist network. Since then, the terrorist leader condoned or orchestrated numerous al Qaeda attacks through splinter cells throughout Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Though Zawahiri was not a name as well-known as bin Laden, his legacy of global mayhem was no less and, in many cases, greater. “He was indicted for his alleged role in the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The FBI put a US $25 million bounty on his head on its most wanted list,” Reuters reported. Before the 9/11 attacks on the US, Zawahiri is believed to have ordered the 1995 car bombing of the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad, killing 16 people.
Arguably, executing Zawahiri was the most successful counterterrorism mission since former President Donald Trump ordered the takedown of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2019. Furthermore, from a precision airstrike perspective, the move against the al Qaeda pariah was similar to the Trump administration’s elimination of Qasem Soleimani, the elite leader of Iran’s Quds Force and global dealer of death with an exact drone attack at the Baghdad airport in January 2020. The targets were hit with little or no collateral damage in both cases.
Taliban Protecting Terrorists
The fact that the US killed the FBI’s most wanted terrorist in Afghanistan should come as no surprise. Following the Biden administration’s chaotic withdrawal from Kabul, there was little doubt in the minds of national security observers worth their salt that al Qaeda would be back in business in the region. It was predictable. “What unnerves me is that Al Zawahiri felt comfortable enough being out in the open in the Kabul area after the Taliban Takeover. So much for the Taliban rejecting al Qaeda,” Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told Fox News. One would suppose the reason the chief terrorist “felt comfortable” was in hob-knobbing with the Taliban Zawahiri had nothing to fear.
Perhaps out of embarrassment for being caught harboring al Qaeda’s leader, the Taliban government condemned the US airstrike on Zawahiri, claiming the action “violated international principles.” But the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the Taliban government’s preferred name, also agreed to prevent ISIS, al Qaeda, and other terrorist organizations from operating out of the country, which clearly it has not. “UN security intelligence experts revealed in June that Al Qaeda was enjoying a ‘safe haven’ in Afghanistan under the Taliban and warned the country could become a base for international terrorist attacks once again,” Natasha Anderson wrote in the Daily Mail.
The CIA’s successful drone strike operation in taking down the illusive Zawahiri was a challenge with limited US intelligence assets on the ground among the Afghan people. In this case, the US was successful, and among the missteps and blunders the Biden foreign policy team has experienced in Afghanistan, the administration can put a check in the win column. But if President Biden and his national security team believe killing Zawahiri is “one and done,” that would be a mistake. The war on terror is still alive, only with one less terrorist.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
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