AYMAN al-Zawahiri, who was reportedly eliminated by an American drone strike in a quiet Kabul neighbourhood early Sunday morning, was one of the most recognisable faces in the world of transnational jihadism. Yet the Al Qaeda Zawahiri led after his boss Osama bin Laden’s killing had lost much of its bite, and had been superseded by even more bloodthirsty concerns, such as the self-styled Islamic State group. The Egyptian doctor-turned-terrorist is believed to have been one of the key ideologues of Al Qaeda. However, significant as it is, Zawahiri’s killing should not be seen as a great victory against terrorism, mainly because of the largely dormant nature of Al Qaeda, as well as the presence of even more violent groups in Afghanistan.
The killing also raises questions about the Afghan Taliban’s commitment to not host foreign terrorists. After the US had withdrawn from Afghanistan last year, the de facto Afghan rulers in Kabul had promised that their land would not be used against others. Yet the fact that the Al Qaeda chief was found and targeted in a Kabul safe house — earlier intelligence reports had indicated that Zawahiri was operating in Afghanistan unhindered — exposes the Taliban’s promise as hollow. It seems the Taliban have learnt nothing from history, as their earlier regime was also dislodged for hosting Al Qaeda. Moreover, the global presence of groups even more fanatical than Al Qaeda shows that current counterterrorism policies are not yielding the desired results. While there is no doubt a military aspect to counterterrorism, and violent militants cannot be allowed to operate freely, many of the underlying issues that fuel terrorism have not been addressed. These include continued indecision on the Kashmir and Palestine questions, occupation of Muslim lands by foreign powers, as well as authoritarian regimes that hold sway over most Muslim states. As per some accounts, Zawahiri turned to extremism after he was tortured in Egyptian prisons. Until these core issues are addressed, many more Zawahiris will continue to emerge.
Published in Dawn, August 3rd, 2022