At first look, the July 31 killing of al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri by a US drone assault in Kabul, Afghanistan, seems to be probably the most vital setback the group has skilled for the reason that demise of its founder, Osama bin Laden, in 2011.
Nevertheless, all through the last decade he administered al-Qaeda, al-Zawahiri labored to make sure the organisation has all the required instruments in place to outlive his demise. As such, whereas the operation that eradicated one of many organisers of the 9/11 assaults is undoubtedly a serious win for the present US administration, it’s unlikely to debilitate the group.
Certainly, the fallout from this focused assassination shall be minimal for al-Qaeda. Al-Zawahiri, seen by many as nothing apart from a “gray bureaucrat”, can simply get replaced by somebody with an identical managerial mindset. He might even get replaced by somebody extra charismatic, boosting the group’s attract amongst present and would-be members alike.
On the worldwide degree, the drone assault in Kabul will undoubtedly affect the US’s relationship with the Taliban, in addition to the way forward for Washington’s drone operations. Nevertheless, it’s unlikely that it’s going to result in any vital change or mark a turning level within the regional not to mention international establishment.
Impression on al-Qaeda
A terror group tends to outlive the demise of its chief if it possesses a functioning organisational forms, an everlasting ideology, and communal assist. Al-Qaeda advantages from all three.
First, it has a strong operational forms. Al-Zawahiri didn’t possess the charisma of his predecessor. However after bin Laden’s demise, he created an intensive, self-sufficient bureaucratic system, with clear chains of command, that ensured the group’s destiny just isn’t tied to any single chief, together with himself. Throughout al-Zawahiri’s tenure, al-Qaeda adopted an growth mannequin which might finest be described as “franchising”. Below his command, the group expanded its attain from Mali to Kashmir with the addition of quite a few largely autonomous and financially self-sufficient branches or “franchises”. As these branches are in a position to proceed operations with out a lot intervention from the central command, the demise of any chief is unlikely to trigger the community to disintegrate.
Second, al-Qaeda adheres to a violent ideology that doesn’t rely on a frontrunner for its articulation or propagation. The set of concepts that information the group existed lengthy earlier than al-Qaeda, and can undoubtedly proceed to be supported by some in zones of failing governance or alienation after its elimination. Al-Zawahiri was no ideologue. And he knew that he didn’t must be one to make sure the group’s growth and longevity. Al-Qaeda’s ideology will proceed to draw assist it doesn’t matter what occurs to its leaders.
Third, below al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda loved vital communal assist in areas the place it has been lively. The late al-Qaeda chief was a pragmatist who castigated as counterproductive the ideological rigidity and excesses of the likes of ISIL founders Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In contrast to them, al-Zawahiri inspired the group he managed to cooperate with, fairly than absolutely dominate, locals and native armed teams. This technique allowed al-Qaeda to develop its attain. In Syria, its affiliate, Ha’yat Tahrir al-Sham, nonetheless endures to today thanks at the very least partly to Zawahiri’s insurance policies. Likewise in sub-Saharan Africa, throughout al-Zawahiri’s tenure, al-Qaeda associates entrenched their presence by forming native political alliances and garnering assist from clan leaders, nomads and farmers. This communal assist is unlikely to die solely because of al-Zawahiri’s killing.
Al-Qaeda confronted probably the most vital problem in its historical past throughout al-Zawahiri’s tenure – it was not a US drone raid or the assassination of a frontrunner however the emergence of a breakaway faction within the type of ISIL, which not solely recruited members from al-Qaeda, however created a rival, state-centric narrative that undermined al-Zawahiri’s bureaucratic, decentralised imaginative and prescient of a terrorist community.
Provided that al-Qaeda managed to outlive the existential problem posed by ISIL, there isn’t any motive to doubt it is going to additionally handle to endure the lack of its most up-to-date chief.
Implications for Doha settlement
The US didn’t discover al-Zawahiri in some hidden cave complicated in a hard-to-access rural space of Afghanistan. He was discovered, and killed, in a suburban district of Kabul. This brought on many to query whether or not the Taliban or at the very least some parts inside the group, knew of or facilitated his presence there.
The 2020 Doha Settlement made the American and NATO withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan contingent on the Taliban’s assurances that the nation wouldn’t function a haven for al-Qaeda or ISIL to launch assaults towards the US.
On this regard, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused the Taliban of violating the Settlement, by “internet hosting and sheltering” al-Zawahiri in Kabul, whereas the Taliban condemned the drone raid, additionally calling it a violation of the Settlement. These statements are paying homage to these exchanged in 2011 between the US and Pakistan after bin Ladin was discovered and killed in a residential district of Abbottabad.
Again then, the US and Pakistan managed to discover a technique to proceed with the modus vivendi they established after airing their grievances. We’re prone to witness the identical between the US and the Taliban after al-Zawahiri’s killing. As soon as they’re completed expressing their grievances about what occurred, they may proceed with their cautious relationship as a result of they share a standard foe: The Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-Okay), the Afghanistan affiliate of ISIL. Because the Biden administration is presently occupied with deterring China and Russia, it nonetheless wants the Taliban to discourage ISIL, or to at the very least maintain the peace in Afghanistan.
Drone assassinations to proceed
In contrast with the Trump administration, the variety of US drone assaults dramatically dropped throughout Biden’s tenure – an obvious acknowledgement by the present administration that such raids contribute to grievances that gasoline violence, battle and anti-US sentiments in the long run.
The 2020 assassination of Iran’s Qassim Soleimani in Iraq, for instance, disadvantaged it of a charismatic chief and allowed then President Trump to attain some simple factors together with his base at residence, however did not in any approach break Iran’s sway over Iraq. In actual fact, it achieved little greater than strengthening anti-US resolve in each nations.
The present US president and people in his administration are undoubtedly conscious of this. Nonetheless, the killing of al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan exhibits that even Biden is unable to withstand the temptation of the short-term political beneficial properties offered by such high-profile, low-risk drone assassinations.
All this means that after the information cycle strikes on from al-Zawahiri’s demise, the actors concerned will doubtless proceed with enterprise as normal. Al-Qaeda will appoint a brand new chief and proceed operations, the US and the Taliban will maintain on to the modus vivendi they established below the 2020 Doha Settlement regardless of elevated tensions, and the US will proceed to make use of drones throughout the Muslim world, whatever the unfavorable long-term affect of such operations.
The views expressed on this article are the writer’s personal and don’t essentially mirror Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.