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Al Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri, like Osama bin Laden, his predecessor, has been killed by the United States.

On August 1st, President Biden announced that a drone strike had taken place in Kabul, Afghanistan killing Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda. Zawahiri had assumed command of Al Qaeda shortly after Osama bin Laden was killed in a U.S. military operation in 2011.

The United States and its allies have arrested many high-value targets such as Abu Faraj al-Libbi and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, but Zawahiri had eluded capture or death for years until he met his demise on a balcony in Kabul.

After assuming the group’s leadership, Zawahiri presided over a long relative decline for the group as the Islamic State eclipsed them as the larger, more deadly terrorist organization and poached many of their regional affiliates. Partly due to his position as an ideologue, he had lost influence and control over the group. On the other hand, his organizational skills have allowed Al Qaeda to survive.

Zawahiri was an Egyptian-born eye surgeon who had met bin Laden in Afghanistan. He was heavily involved in the planning of the September 11 terror attacks, the U.S. embassy attacks in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Kenya in 1998, and the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. As such he was a major target.

The death of Ayman al-Zawahiri begs the question of what happens next.

His death has weakened an already declining Al Qaeda. The killing of Zawahiri will leave a power vacuum at least for a short while. Most observers expect him to be succeeded by Saif al-Adel, his second-in-command. Adel is a former colonel in the Egyptian military and was bin Laden’s security chief.

Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri
Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri in 2001. (Hamid Mir)

Al Qaeda under his leadership might see a more military-oriented approach in specific hotspots where its affiliates operate. These include Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, Al Shabaab in Somalia, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin in Mali, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in North and West Africa, and Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent. Al Qaeda has lost influence and control in the Levant, first to ISIS and after the subsequent decline of ISIS, to a general relative decline of Islamic extremism in the region. This has forced them to move towards more regional affiliates.

Al Shabaab has become prominent due to its financial support for Al Qaeda. A United Nations report suggests it provides up to $50 million in support to the core leadership. Al Shabaab also enjoys relative impunity in the Horn of Africa and can generate income and carry out operations without worry compared to other affiliates.

Even under Zawahiri, Al Qaeda adapted to rely more on these local affiliates and their armed insurgent groups rather than mass terror attacks. Under Adel, this might intensify.

On the other hand, there might be a power struggle as Adel does not share the same reach and fame as Osama bin Laden or Zawahiri.

The Islamic State has suffered similar losses in leadership since its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed, crippling its organization and ability to carry out attacks. Al Qaeda meanwhile has managed to survive with a relatively stable network and hence was set to surpass ISIS again until Zawahiri’s death.

With the loss of Zawahiri, Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb might gain more control and influence over Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has fought a long insurgency and has been able to unify multiple Jihadist groups in the region. These relative successes have shifted the impetus to Africa.

This points toward a lessening of attacks on Western targets, and a shift towards regional insurgency which has succeeded for the above groups. Al Qaeda has always been a somewhat decentralized organization and the lack of a major central figure like Zawahiri will probably only increase this. If Saif al-Adel takes over Al Qaeda, it is likely he will try to take a more active role, considering his historical relationship with the group’s security and operations wing. But whether he will be able to exercise such a role with his lack of clout remains to be seen.

While on the grand scale of things, this has been a major blow for Al Qaeda and will aid in their decline, we should not rush to rule out the group as a threat to global security. Due to their still strong presence in certain places like Somalia, Mali, North Africa, and a new safe hub in Afghanistan, the threat from these localized affiliates increases.

For the United States, the death of Zawahiri has shown quite a few things. For one, the concrete proof of Zawahiri’s presence in Afghanistan will reduce what little trust America had for the Taliban which will only hurt Afghans who are facing a bleak future.

According to the agreement negotiated with the Trump administration, the Taliban had promised not to allow any individuals or groups including Al Qaeda to operate on Afghan soil nor to cooperate with them.

Another thing this strike has proven is that America still holds the ability to carry out counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and still has some level of an intelligence network there even after the Taliban takeover. This means Al Qaeda is not fully safe even in Afghanistan.

More importantly, the drone strike can be partly seen as a legitimization of America’s new counterterrorism policy. This policy is based on a shift from direct military intervention towards a more “Over the Horizon” policy utilizing drone strikes and special forces raids.

The nature of the strike on Zawahiri shows how this new policy intends to work. The attack on Zawahiri very specifically targeted him, with minimal damage to surrounding civilians or his family. It seems that this new policy aims to reduce collateral damage as well as avoid “forever wars” such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan and avoid the long-drawn-out insurgencies and nation-building that came with them.

The death of Ayman al-Zawahiri may have substantial consequences for Al Qaeda and its operations worldwide. It is also a sign that American security forces are not as detached from Afghanistan as some thought after the fall of Kabul.

Prathamesh Yemul is an avid reader and writer, and an admirer of classical music like Vivaldi and Mozart. He completed a Bachelor's degree in Political Science, and is aiming at pursuing a Master's degree in International Relations or Strategic Studies. He loves to read and speculate about geopolitics and international affairs.