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What Zawahiri’s Death Means

Sep 14, 2022
  • Wang Zhen

    Research Professor, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences

On August 1, U.S. President Joe Biden announced on Aug. 1 that the United States had killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul, Afghanistan, on July 30. Although this action was another important blow to al-Qaeda, its significance in the global counterterrorism war is limited.

First, Zawahiri and today’s al-Qaida have had only a limited impact on the global transnational jihadi movement. Al-Qaida is no longer a major player, even though it had been the main flag-bearer since the 1990s, following the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida were hiding in Afghanistan, which then became the center of the global jihadi movement.

However, after the Arab Spring in 2011 and the rise of ISIS in 2013, the center of the movement began to shift westward to Syria and Iraq. Consequently, the influence of al-Qaida rapidly declined, and the Islamic State (IS, ISIL) replaced it as the new flag-bearer.

Another reason is that in the aftermath of 9/11 al-Qaida was transformed from a pyramidal transnational terrorist network into a loose global al-Qaida Islamic movement, or AQIM, as a result of the U.S. global counterterrorism war. It has long been clear that the AQIM and its transnational network will not disappear because of the loss of a single leader.

Although Zawahiri was a longtime bin Laden aide and succeeded him as the leader of al-Qaida after May 2011, his influence on the AQIM and the global jihadi movement has been far from that of bin Ladenvv.

Second, the killing of Zawahiri will not mean that the U.S. will change its global counterterrorism strategy. First of all, despite the high-profile announcement of Zawahiri’s death, the White House did not suggest any new strategy. In fact, it was more of a move by the Biden team aimed at the upcoming midterm elections, in response to public criticism of its policy failures in Afghanistan and the president’s fruitless trip to the Middle East in July.

Additionally, the Biden administration has already changed its assessment of the global terrorist threat. In April last year, in an annual threat report, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence adjusted the threat rankings to the United States. Competition from other nations was listed as the top “threat source.” The report concludes that while “ISIS and al-Qaida remain the greatest Sunni terrorist threats to U.S. interests overseas,” continued American counterterrorism operations with allies have “broadly degraded” terrorists’ ability to launch attacks inside the United States. At the same time, U.S.-based lone actors and small cells with a broad range of ideological motives pose an increasing and immediate domestic threat.

In contrast with the threat assessment, the U.S. counterterrorism strategy has shifted its focus to the homeland, which is the underlying reason for the Biden administration’s “baggage dump” withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021. The fact that Biden released his National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism less than six months after taking office but has not yet released his national counterterrorism strategy, may be seen as more proof that the focus of the counterterrorism strategy has shifted to the home front.

Third, the death of Zawahiri will not restore U.S. leadership and influence in Afghanistan or in the global war against terror. Above all, with the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and the refusal to support some of its regional allies in the anti-terror fight, the United States has, de facto, abdicated its leadership responsibilities in the global counterterrorism community, which includes both its Western allies and world powers such as China and Russia, along with important regional allies such as Pakistan and Egypt.

It is through this transnational counterterror cooperation mechanism that the U.S. has been able to fight al-Qaida and its patrons globally, and has led airstrikes against the IS. What’s more, the killing of Zawahiri by U.S. forces in Afghanistan does not mean that U.S. forces have returned, or will return, to Afghanistan to regain control of the country’s counter-terrorism actions. The Taliban has become the most important player in Afghanistan after regaining power, and U.S. precision drone strikes in Afghanistan do not change this fact.

However, the American reluctance to recognize the Taliban regime and its refusal to provide counterterror support or assistance — plus its indifference to the humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan — undermined the Taliban’s willingness to comply with the Doha Agreement and cooperate with the U.S. in fighting terrorism. That willingness quickly dissipated.

The U.S. distancing of some of its counterterrorism allies in recent years has had enormous negative consequences. These allies actively supported and participated in the U.S.-led global war on terror after 9/11 and incurred heavy costs in retaliation by terrorists. As the United States abdicates its leadership responsibility globally and reduces its assistance to its regional allies, their willingness and interest in continuing the fight has greatly diminished.

Last but not least, the killing of Zawahiri does not change the fact that the U.S. has been redefining the global counterterror war in accordance with its own interests, tailored to the so-called “great power competition.” After 9/11, China, Russia and other world powers had actively supported the U.S. in the global war on terror, identifying common goals and making tacit agreements on a number of matters.

Since the Obama administration, however, the U.S. has sought to withdraw from the global counterterror war on one hand while attempting to redefine that war on the other. The Trump administration allowed unscrupulous politicians, including Mike Pompeo and the putative “deep state” to manipulate Xinjiang-related issues to carry out so-called strategic competition with China — for instance, removing the infamous East Turkistan Islamic Movement from the blacklist of foreign terrorist organizations. This has not only spawned various Uygur separatist groups outside of China but also undermined the strategic mutual trust and political foundation for U.S.-China counterterror cooperation since 9/11.

In recent years, the U.S.-Russia fight against terrorism in Syria and beyond has already evolved into a proxy war. After the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the U.S.-Russia counterterror dialogue in Afghanistan halted. Even more worrying is that, with the support of the United States and its allies, a large number of white-supremacist extremists, and even neo-Nazis — by thousands or even tens of thousands — have been flooding into Ukrainian battlefields. It is foreseeable that once the war in Ukraine is over, these violent white supremacists, who possess both ethnic hatred and war-experience, are likely to pose further global terrorist threats in the future.

After all, we can never forget the high incidence of international hijackings during the early Cold War confrontation and the backlash of anti-Soviet jihad, which was originally covertly aided by the United States. The lessons are not far behind.

In a word, while Zawahiri’s death is a step forward in the fight against terrorism, it would be an overstatement to say that it will dispel worries about the future of the global counterterror movement.

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