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Afghanistan and Iran after the assassination of Zawahiri

Aug 3, 2022 | Oved Lobel

The two terrorist founders of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden (L) and his successor Ayman al-Zawahiri, both now brought to justice by the US
The two terrorist founders of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden (L) and his successor Ayman al-Zawahiri, both now brought to justice by the US

On August 2, US President Joe Biden announced that the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had been killed in a US drone strike on July 30 in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. Justice has finally caught up with one of the most infamous and longest-serving terrorist leaders in the world.

His death, the timing and the setting, however, suggest this strike may be as much a political action as a security-oriented one. Zawahiri’s death will also once again put a spotlight on Iran as an al-Qaeda headquarters, as Sayf al-Adl, long based in Iran, is the most likely to take over the group as his successor.

Ultimately, the US may ask Israel to assassinate al-Adl in Iran, as its intelligence services allegedly did to al-Qaeda’s previous number two, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, almost exactly two years ago, to contain potential negative fallout from the decision to target Zawahiri.

A killing accompanied by a dubious political message

As we approach the first anniversary of the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US Administration has been trying to recast and reset the narrative for the upcoming US congressional elections, both about Afghanistan and Biden’s strength more broadly.

The Administration is presenting the strike as a demonstration that it was correct about the practicality of a so-called “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism strategy it had trumpeted as the alternative to a military presence in Afghanistan. It is also claiming that it’s holding the Taliban to account for allegedly violating the deal it signed with the Trump Administration.

As part of the coordinated messaging, Biden asserted:

When I ended our military mission in Afghanistan almost a year ago, I made the decision that after 20 years of war, the United States no longer needed thousands of boots on the ground in Afghanistan to protect America from terrorists who seek to do us harm. And I made a promise to the American people that we’d continue to conduct effective counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and beyond. We’ve done just that.

Former President Barack Obama then tweeted, “Tonight’s news is also proof that it’s possible to root out terrorism without being at war in Afghanistan.” A chorus of Democratic politicians and media surrogates are now proclaiming a similar message based on the strike: Biden was right to withdraw, and the terrorism threat from Afghanistan can be managed from outside the country.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meanwhile, has taken the lead in pushing the narrative that this strike was an example of holding the Taliban accountable for allegedly violating the deal and allowing al-Qaeda’s leader freedom of movement:

By hosting and sheltering the leader of al Qa’ida in Kabul, the Taliban grossly violated the Doha Agreement and repeated assurances to the world that they would not allow Afghan territory to be used by terrorists to threaten the security of other countries.

Unfortunately, this claim is dubious. The Doha deal is at best ambiguous on the Taliban’s obligations – it does say that the Taliban will prevent “any group or individual, including al-Qa’ida, from using the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies,” but not that al-Qaeda cannot operate there if one argues it is not threatening the US and its allies. And there is no clear evidence it currently is, “aspirational desire” notwithstanding.

Moreover, it has been clear since the 1990s that there is no relevant distinction between the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other nodes in the Pakistani-led regional terrorist network, all of which have been operating very openly in the Taliban’s Afghanistan for a year.

The simple fact is that the withdrawal from Afghanistan was an objective humanitarian and security catastrophe. Killing the leader of al-Qaeda – which has become less threatening over recent years due in part to its current lack of an external operations capability – and whom the US has been tracking for decades, is not a real example of relevant “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism capabilities in Afghanistan. This is also the only known example of an American “over-the-horizon” strike in the country since the withdrawal last August.

The real test will come when and if the only real potential terrorist threat in Afghanistan, Islamic State – Khorasan Province (ISKP), opts for an external operations capability. The US Defense Intelligence Agency has assessed ISKP “could direct attacks in the West, including against the U.S. homeland, within the next year if the group prioritizes developing such a capability.”

Iran’s role

Ayman al-Zawahiri was actually a fairly ineffective leader of al-Qaeda, a figure derided by analysts and jihadists alike both before and during his tenure. His unsuitability for leadership and lack of charisma were evident even in his early days as a jihadist in the 70s and 80s, as documented in Lawrence Wright’s seminal work on Al-Qaeda, The Looming Tower, with Essam al-Qamari telling him, “If you are a member of any group, you cannot be the leader.” As Gregg Carlstrom, a journalist at The Economist, put it, “Zawahiri will be best remembered for transforming al-Qaeda from a feared terrorist franchise into a really boring podcast.”

Zawahiri’s death could actually turn out to be counterproductive, as the next in line for leadership – assuming he himself is still alive – is widely agreed to be al-Qaeda’s long-standing military chief Sayf al-Adl, who has been based in Iran for decades. If anyone can revive the organisation’s fortunes, it is al-Adl, and with al-Qaeda officials now on notice that Afghanistan still isn’t safe for them, many may choose to relocate to Iran. The relationship between Zawahiri’s pre-al-Qaeda Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), including its Lebanese branch Hezbollah, began as early as 1991, eventually evolving into a deep partnership between al-Qaeda and Teheran.

This is where Israel could come into the picture. Almost exactly two years ago, Israel reportedly assassinated al-Qaeda’s then number two, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, in the centre of Teheran at the behest of the US. In recent years, Israel’s pervasive infiltration and agent network across Iran has allowed it to assassinate IRGC officials, military officers, nuclear scientists and anyone else likely to pose a threat, including al-Qaeda leaders, practically at will.

As the US seemingly has no similar network and would be very unlikely to conduct a strike directly on Iranian territory, it would have to rely once again on Israel’s agents to kill Sayf al-Adl if it became necessary to head off any potential attempts to reconstitute al-Qaeda there.

Of course, the Biden Administration should also be making ending the Iranian regime’s long-standing and ongoing support for al-Qaeda a key demand in its efforts to end the regime’s rogue behaviour – including not only its nuclear program, but also its extensive support for terrorism.

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