Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri’s death raises big questions – USA TODAY

Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri’s death by drone strike big serious questions about the U.S. counterterrorism war and pullout from Afghanistan.

Show Caption
  • Experts said the killing of al-Zawahri doesn’t validate Biden’s pullout from Afghanistan.
  • The former al-Qaida leader played a role in the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
  • A number of potential successors could take his place.

Some of the most basic details have been disclosed about the U.S. drone strike that killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri at sunrise Saturday in Kabul, the bustling capital of Afghanistan.

But as is always the case with major counterterrorism operations, it could be weeks, months or even years before we know the answers to some of the bigger questions involving the operation – including how much of an impact it will have in terms of making Americans safer.

Here are some of the key outstanding questions, and some initial answers and prognostications surrounding al-Zawahri’s death, based on interviews with current and former U.S. counterterrorism officials and other experts.

Who was Ayman al-Zawahri?

While Osama bin Laden was the public face, founder and a chairman-of-the-board-like figure of al-Qaida, al-Zawahri operated more as a CEO of the organization from its creation in the mid-1990s. That included playing a management role in some of its most audacious plots, including the coordinated attacks on New York and Washington that killed nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001.

When Bin Laden was killed by U.S. special forces in Pakistan in 2011, Zawahri – his top deputy – immediately stepped into the role of emir, or leader of the terror network. In recent months, he has led a resurgence of the group’s core organization in Afghanistan, thanks in part to the withdrawal of U.S. troops last year, according to a recent United Nations counterterrorism report.

“Member State assessments thus far suggest that Al-Qaida has a safe haven under the Taliban and increased freedom of action,” the May 2020 UN report said, adding that al-Zawahri has issued more frequent recorded communiques to his followers since last August, when the Taliban chased off the U.S.-friendly Kabul government and took control of the country.

More: Who is Ayman al-Zawahri? Master strategist for al-Qaida was Osama bin Laden’s mentor, then successor

Does al-Zawahri’s killing validate President Joe Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan? 

No, according to most counterterrorism experts interviewed by USA TODAY, including some of the CIA and Pentagon’s top former Al-Qaida hunters.

They say the successful multiagency operation shows an impressive “over the horizon” capability, or the ability to coordinate a lethal strike from afar without any U.S. military or intelligence assets in Afghanistan. Biden said that capability was a key justification for his decision to withdraw troops and spies from there and still keep the terrorist threat in check.

But most U.S. intelligence and military counterterrorism officials say there usually needs to be an on-the-ground collection component to identify and track a potential target and then guide U.S. missiles and drone strikes to it. And that network, which the U.S. laboriously built up during two-plus decades in Afghanistan is dwindling quickly in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal.

“The over the horizon stuff is crap. We can send drones anywhere to kill people but you can’t fire a missile without knowing where to look, what you’re looking at – and what to look for,” said Douglas London, the CIA’s top Afghanistan counterterrorism officer for many years before his retirement in 2019.

And that kind of intelligence needed for accurate – and especially preventive – strikes is almost entirely dependent on the kind of vetted first-hand human intelligence and signals intelligence that the U.S. largely lost when it pulled out of Afghanistan, he said.

“That usually comes from us directly or from a local (intel/military) partner, of which we have none in Afghanistan,” London said.

More: Biden and Trump administrations didn’t miss ISIS-K threat – they ignored it, experts say

“While this was a good operation, I don’t think this means that the full withdrawal was a good idea,” said Michael “Mick” Mulroy, a former deputy assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, former Marine and retired CIA paramilitary operations officer. “We’ve lost any or most ability to have eyes and ears on the ground and know what’s going on and to act as a deterrent” against plotting by terrorist organizations in Afghanistan.

How was the US able to track and kill al-Zawahri without boots on the ground?

The U.S. government, like always, is declining to discuss most aspects of the operation, which are highly classified, to protect sources and methods of gathering that kind of sensitive intelligence.

One thing that is clear is that the Biden administration made good use of its formidable ISR technologies – short for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance – which form the foundation of its “over the horizon” strike capability. Much of that intelligence comes from satellites and sophisticated drones that can “loiter” in a target area for prolonged periods of time, London said. 

A successful terrorist manhunt, though, requires a triad of intelligence-gathering techniques – ISR, and signals and human intelligence, according to Marc Polymeropoulos, who retired from the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service in 2019 after 26 years tracking terrorists on the ground in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.  

Signals intelligence is information gleaned largely from the electronics used by foreign adversaries, including intercepted phone and internet communications, that provide a window into their capabilities, actions, and intentions.

Polymeropoulos and London told USA TODAY that human intelligence – or real-time information provided by people close to the target – is generally preferable in order to be able to take out someone like al-Zawahri on a balcony in the middle of a crowded city, especially without injuring anyone else. 

Ideally, that “humint,” as the CIA calls it, would be cultivated by the agency’s own case officers, who usually have years of experience handling locally-based agents on the ground in hostile environments. 

“It’s likely that we had some humint,” Polymeropoulos said, mostly likely in the form of information gatherers still on the CIA payroll in Kabul or other parts of the country. “Presumably we’ve left some networks or sources there who can report on some individuals for us.” 

London, author of the 2021 book, “The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence,” said al-Zawahri’s decision to join family in Kabul “gave us advantages” that helped make up for the lack of human sources in Afghanistan.

“A lot of people travel in and out of there so it’s easier to collect” both human and signals intelligence than it is in a remote location, said London. He believes the U.S. and its allies “still have a core of collectors left behind that we were able to communicate with” on the operation.

More: How Hellfire missiles and intense surveillance were part of fatal attack on al-Zawahri

What does this say about the Taliban and al-Qaida’s relationship?

The fact that al-Zawahri reportedly was killed at a house owned by a top aide to senior Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani proves that the Taliban has never cut its ties to al-Qaida like it promised to in the Trump-era deal that set the stage for the U.S. withdrawal. 

A senior administration official confirmed in a briefing with reporters Monday that al-Zawahri’s presence in downtown Kabul was a “clear violation” of the deal, which was endorsed and supported by the Biden administration.

“It doesn’t just show that the Taliban aren’t just bad partners but that they are actively working against our interests,” Mulroy said.

The UN report said that al-Qaida has regrouped in Afghanistan thanks to protection afforded by the Taliban in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal.

Will killing al-Zawahri make a difference?

That depends on a multitude of factors, including who replaces al-Zawahri as emir, or leader of al-Qaida, and whether the Taliban can be pressured into backing away from its support of the terror network.  

His death places al-Qaida at perhaps its most important crossroads since its inception in the 1990s. When Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011, al-Zawahri was clearly his replacement as the terror group’s longtime No. 2 leader and organizational planner.

But with al-Zawahri out of the picture, the group’s leaders will have to choose between a known and trusted aide to him or a dark horse candidate who might have broader appeal among al-Qaida’s next generation of recruits and its regional affiliates in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere, said Colin Clarke, a South Asia terror expert and research director at the Soufan Group. 

Al-Qaida’s decision on a successor also comes at a critical juncture in Afghanistan, where the group is engaged in a power struggle with ISIS-K, the regional affiliate of the Islamic State, which is also resurgent in the wake of the U.S. pullout. 

That intensifying rivalry is causing both groups to look for ways to launch high-profile attacks in order to recruit and fundraise off of them, Clarke said. .

He said al-Qaida in particular will spend the next year developing the capability to strike U.S. and other Western targets.

But perhaps most importantly, success against a resurgent al-Qaida in South Asia and its affiliates in other parts of the world will depend on how aggressively the U.S. and its allies pursue them.

For the past two decades, virtually all significant counterterrorism successes have come from efforts to take out the entire command and control structure of a terror network like al-Qaida or ISIS, including financiers and operational commanders.

A decapitation strike that just takes out a leader like al-Zawahri might do little to damage the overall organization, and can even backfire if their replacement is smarter, more influential and bent on revenging their death, London told USA TODAY.

Who will replace al-Zawahri?

For now, the smart money is on Saif al-Adel replacing al-Zawahri, a longtime deputy who is living in Iran, most likely under some form of house arrest or government control, London said. 

Al-Adel has been close to al-Zawahri for several decades, and is wanted by the U.S. in connection with the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. But at the age of 62, he may be seen as too old to lead the organization at such a time of transition, London said.,

He said al-Zawahri may also be seen as too linked to “core al-Qaida” in Afghanistan and not the affiliate groups like al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb or al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

The recent United Nations counterterrorism report listed some other potential successors, including the much younger al-Zawahri son-in-law Abd al Rahman al Maghrebi, a Moroccan born national. London, however, said al Maghrebi has never wanted to be in charge and has been happy running al-Qaida’s prolific media arm, As-Sahab. 

Next in line of seniority after al Maghrebi, the UN report said, are Yazid Mebrak of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the group’s affiliate in Algeria and other parts of the African Sahel region, and Ahmed Diriye of Al-Shabaab in Somalia and a broader swath of East Africa.

None of them come close to matching al-Zawahri, or bin Laden, in terms of stature or influence within the entire al-Qaida network, according to Joshua Sinai, a counterterrorism analyst and former Department of Homeland Security official. 

“No other al-Qaida leader is as strategically important, with the next level of leadership lacking al-Zawahri’s charisma and authoritativeness,” Sinai said. “This makes his targeting so strategically important in degrading al-Qaida as a world-class terrorist organization.”  

Al-Adel and other al-Qaida figures living in Iran would be particularly hampered by that country’s control over them, Sinai said, “since Iran likely doesn’t want them operationally involved in terrorist attacks, since it will backfire on Iran.”

As a result, he said, “AQ now is basically leaderless, so it will be interesting to see what transpires,” using a common abbreviation for the terror network. “I do wonder about a retaliation by AQ remnants — will it be low scale or catastrophic? Will it take place overseas or in the U.S.?”


Biden: al-Qaida leader al-Zawahri ‘is no more’

President Joe Biden confirms that a U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan this weekend killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri, declaring “justice has been delivered.” “This terrorist leader is no more,” Biden said from the White House’s balcony. (Aug. 1)


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Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri’s death raises big questions – USA TODAY

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