August 02, 2022

CNAS Responds: Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri killed in drone strike

By Richard Fontaine, Paul Scharre, Lisa Curtis, Carrie Cordero, Christopher D. Kolenda, and Dr. Jason Dempsey

Center for a New American Security experts offer insight into the ramifications of the CIA-led killing of al Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri and the lasting legacy of the global war on terror.

All quotes may be used with attribution. To arrange an interview, email comms@cnas.org.

Richard Fontaine, Chief Executive Officer

The killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri represents both a major counterterrorism success and a sign of serious risk in Taliban-run Afghanistan. Zawahri spent decades bent on planning and inspiring violent attacks against the United States, and his departure from this mortal coil can only be met with relief. The elimination of al Qaeda's leader— Osama bin Laden's chief deputy on 9/11—will render America safer. The operation demonstrates that, at least in this case, the U.S. over-the-horizon counterterrorism capability works, even without an intelligence and operations presence inside Afghanistan. And it turns one more page in the long chapter of post-9/11 national trauma.

Zawahri's presence in downtown Kabul, however, points to the enduring threat posed by Taliban rule. The Doha Agreement does not compel the Taliban to expel al Qaeda or even break ties with it; rather, the peace accord merely requires the Taliban to prevent the use of Afghan soil for external terrorist attacks. Now, it appears, the country's acting interior minister was himself engaged in sheltering al Qaeda's leader. The gravest risk of Taliban victory and U.S. withdrawal was that Afghanistan would revert to a sanctuary for terrorists with global reach. That appears to be materializing, placing yet greater emphasis on the American ability to handle threats from over the horizon.

Paul Scharre, Vice President and Director of Studies

The Zawahiri strike demonstrates the sharp reality of contemporary U.S. counterterrorism operations: there are no safe havens. Over the last two decades, the United States has developed an extremely effective apparatus for illuminating and dismantling terrorist networks. What is striking is how dramatically the U.S. paradigm for countering terrorism has changed. After 9/11, the United States embarked on a campaign of nation-building to deny al Qaeda safe havens. These nation-building efforts failed, but the shadow war fought by the intelligence community and special operators was effective in taking down terrorist networks in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as places where the U.S. didn’t have troops on the ground like Pakistan. Because its operations have largely been conducted in secret, with sporadic news stories after a high-profile strike or raid, the effectiveness of these counterterrorism operations has often gone under-appreciated, including by some in the U.S. national security community who haven’t been directly involved in these operations. Yet they are extremely effective.

The United States has been able to systematically degrade and dismantle al Qaeda and affiliated terrorist organizations using surgical strikes, degrading their ability to carry out attacks on the U.S. homeland. And the United States has been able to keep this pressure on. The U.S. transition last year to an entirely over-the-horizon counterterrorism approach in Afghanistan wasn’t some grand new experiment, but the culmination of a decade-plus shift in U.S. counterterrorism efforts away from nation-building toward surgical direct action with minimal footprint on the ground. U.S. counterterrorism operations will, and must, continue.

The threat from al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations of global reach will not disappear. But what’s clear, not just from yesterday’s strike but from the long history of U.S. counterterrorism operations, is that the United States can keep the pressure on terrorists and deny them safe haven without occupying and trying to rebuild nations.

Lisa Curtis, Senior Fellow and Director, Indo-Pacific Security Program

The elimination of al Qaeda Emir Ayman al-Zawahiri is a victory for U.S. counterterrorism efforts. The Biden administration and the dedicated and tireless U.S. intelligence professionals deserve credit for a successful strike that avoided loss of innocent life. The Biden administration has put to rest critics’ claims that over-the-horizon counterterrorism operations would not be an effective way to deal with emerging threats in the region.

While the stark revelation that the Taliban had been sheltering the number one al Qaeda leader in downtown Kabul came as no surprise to this author, it should be a wake-up call for those who have argued that the Taliban has changed since they last ruled the country in the 1990s. It should also lead the United States to suspend any talks with the Taliban leadership, which have achieved little in the last 11 months. Take for example, the Taliban’s unwillingness to allow girls to attend school beyond the sixth grade. It's been over four months since the Taliban made that fateful decision, and there are no signs they will reverse it anytime soon.

The United Nations has been reporting for months that the Taliban remains allied with al Qaeda, and that al Qaeda had begun to reconstitute its base in the country. This is proof the Doha agreement signed by the Trump administration in February 2020 is meaningless and achieved nothing for U.S. national security interests. The Biden administration should have tossed the agreement when it took power in January 2021 and instead negotiated a troop withdrawal directly with the previous Ashraf Ghani government. The Doha agreement only made it easier for the Taliban to claim legitimacy and to undermine the morale of the previous Afghan government, helping pave the way for the Taliban’s return to power.

If the Biden administration wants to continue the counterterrorism momentum created by the successful strike against Zawahiri, it should immediately suspend talks with the Taliban and finally discard the meaningless Doha agreement.

Carrie Cordero, Robert M. Gates Senior Fellow

With the targeted killing of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, the U.S. intelligence community has demonstrated it continues to work quietly behind the scenes on a range of national security threats past, present and future. For those who have worked in the national security arena on counterterrorism matters for over the past two decades, his death closes one more chapter of justice and accountability for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the attacks of September 11, 2001, among others. For today's national security policy community, the successful operation demonstrates that robust authorities and capabilities for U.S. intelligence collection, analysis, and operations remain essential. These activities, and the legal frameworks that have been developed to sustain them, are necessary to ensure that the U.S. can address the full range of challenges presented by a complex modern threat environment.

Christopher Kolenda, Adjunct Senior Fellow

The successful strike that killed Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul shows that the United States' ability to detect and target threats to the homeland has improved substantially in the past 20 years, so we should not use 2001 thinking to address 2022 challenges. The fact that the al Qaeda leader was living in Kabul shows that the U.S. tendency to negotiate peace agreements only after exhausting itself in the pursuit of total victory jeopardizes American interests. After rebuffing Taliban offers to surrender in 2001 and to negotiate in 2011, the United States agreed in 2020 to a total troop withdrawal in Afghanistan in exchange for Taliban promises not to harbor attack-plotting terrorists.

Jason Dempsey, Adjunct Senior Fellow, Military, Veterans, and Society Program

The successful strike against al-Zawahiri is welcome news and a reminder of the lethality and reach of U.S. counterterrorism capabilities. But as with all similar efforts over the past decades, it cannot be seen as an end to the fight, or solely within the context of U.S. operations against al Qaeda. The strike reveals that the Taliban remain largely who they have always been, and that they should not be extended the courtesies of a legitimate government. At the same time, we must balance our reaction to the Taliban government with the need to continue to support our allies within the country and not unnecessarily punish the people of Afghanistan. The challenge for this administration will be to keep the Taliban isolated while finding constructive ways to engage and support those Afghans who want to see a different future for their country.

Authors

  • Richard Fontaine

    Chief Executive Officer

    Richard Fontaine is the Chief Executive Officer of CNAS. He served as President of CNAS from 2012–19 and as Senior Fellow from 2009–12. Prior to CNAS, he was foreign policy ad...

  • Paul Scharre

    Vice President and Director of Studies

    Paul Scharre is the Vice President and Director of Studies at CNAS. He is the award-winning author of Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War, which won the 201...

  • Lisa Curtis

    Senior Fellow and Director, Indo-Pacific Security Program

    Lisa Curtis is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at CNAS. She is a foreign policy and national security expert with over 20 years of service in...

  • Carrie Cordero

    Robert M. Gates Senior Fellow

    Carrie Cordero is the Robert M. Gates Senior Fellow and General Counsel at CNAS. Her research and writing interests focus on homeland security and intelligence community overs...

  • Christopher D. Kolenda

    Adjunct Senior Fellow

    Christopher D. Kolenda, Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, is the Founder of the Strategic Leaders Academy and helps solo practitioners and small...

  • Dr. Jason Dempsey

    Adjunct Senior Fellow, Military, Veterans, and Society Program

    Jason Dempsey is an Adjunct Senior Fellow of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Dr. Dempsey has written extensively ...