Nearly a year after Nato-led forces withdrew from Afghanistan, the US targeted Ayman al-Zawahiri, a senior al-Qaeda leader in a drone strike in Kabul.
While this drone strike represents the first counter-terrorism strike acknowledged by the US inside Afghanistan after the chaotic withdrawal last year, it is said to have minimum impact on combating the terror threat in the region, and weakening al-Qaeda's operational capacity and its historical links to the Taliban.
In hiding for more than a decade, Zawahiri may not have had the charisma and leadership skills of Osama bin Laden but he kept ideology and image of al-Qaeda intact. He inspired local affiliates such as al-Shabab in Somalia and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen able to adeptly and independently coordinate terror attacks against US interests.
This strike, then, has greater symbolic value as well as political impact with regards to regional counter-terrorism, intelligence gathering and eliminating safe havens for transnational terrorists.
The US administration was able to target the 71-year old leader in the early hours of the morning in Kabul’s Sherpur area because he had a habit of standing on his balcony allowing them to observe him and confirm his identity.
The use of an observation and tracking method - along with human networks on the ground - is significant in counter-terrorism approaches and put to use in the past to confirm the identity of terrorist leaders.
The operation to track Zawahiri down through his family has echoes of the killing of Bin Laden. Zawahiri’s relocation to a safe house in Kabul in May, according to some sources, with his wife, his daughter and grandchildren is significant, raising questions about the Taliban leadership’s commitment to harbouring Al-Qaeda leaders.
This is the biggest takeaway from the Kabul strike. Who provided shelter to a senior leader in the heart of Kabul in the Wazir Akbar Khan area; and what role are al-Qaeda members playing in Afghanistan.
How will the Taliban regime move on to an internationally accepted government is unclear at this point. The next step to watch is how this will undermine the Taliban’s efforts to unfreeze $9 billion in assets held in the US.
While there is intelligence about al-Qaeda leaders and their members residing in Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan, there is also knowledge that the old guard of the Taliban leadership have a long-standing relationship with the leadership which they have not severed - despite the 2020 Doha agreement and pledges to keep terrorist groups off Afghan soil.
In February 2022, a UN report raised concerns that al-Qaeda and its affiliates not only had safe haven in Afghanistan but ‘terrorist groups enjoy greater freedom there than at any time in recent history'.
Pointing to the statements and communications from Zawahiri, this report appears to indicate had he lived in Afghanistan he would lead and influence his people more adequately with the Taliban takeover.
Zawahiri had a relationship with the Taliban’s senior leaders, who fought alongside him and his fighters in the 1980s, providing refuge to him in subsequent decades. This strike, however, comes when there are fissures and competition within the Taliban’s ranks.
Last month, the Taliban’s supreme leader, Habitullah Akhundzada, had demanded pledges of obedience from Taliban leaders in an effort to consolidate power. Zawahiri’s death during Akhundzada’s rule (to whom Zawahiri pledged allegiance on behalf of al-Qaeda in 2016), could exacerbate whatever cracks already exist within the Taliban, and thus weaken their ability to govern and fight Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K).
It could cause more fissures between hardliners.
That said the Taliban have been struggling for international legitimacy and recognition since seizing power almost a year ago and this strike could ruin those efforts especially when it is widely known that the Taliban government was harbouring Zawahiri - the house where he was killed is reportedly owned by an aide of interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani.
Intelligence sources have established the Haqqani network - with longstanding ties to al-Qaeda and part of the Taliban government - had hosted Zawahiri, helping to quickly move his family after the strike.
This strike demonstrates there are active cells involved in terrorism and again it reminds of the historical ties between al-Qaeda and the Taliban and that senior officials - especially Sirajuddin Haqqani, Afghanistan’s acting interior minister and a US-designated terrorist - have close ties with al-Qaeda leaders.
On its part, the Taliban have accused Washington of violating the 2020 Doha agreement.
The American administration, which has sanctioned and isolated the regime creating resentment among ordinary Afghans faced with innumerable economic challenges, has accused the Taliban of violating the Doha agreement by sheltering Zawahiri.
At this point, the US must push for engagement and cooperation on humanitarian, rights and governance issues, including girls’ education, counter-terrorism, especially when it comes to targeting Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) which reportedly has as many as 4,000 members in the country.
With no apparent direction for the Taliban regime to transition from a terror group with links to international terrorists to a stable non-violent government able to provide security and rights to the people of Afghanistan, the terror problem will continue to pose grave regional threats.
Then there is the question whether Zawahiri’s whereabouts were given by Taliban officials seeking a reward for information and support for the return of Afghanistan’s frozen assets.
Was the Haqqani leadership and Sirajuddin Haqqani unaware of this and the strike because there are rifts within the Taliban and divisions regarding its approach to governance?
Is al-Qaeda training foot soldiers for the Haqqanis in Afghanistan? What role, if any, has Pakistan played in this elimination - especially when the Afghan Taliban are working to negotiate a deal with the TTP and Pakistan’s intelligence chiefs are making visits to the Afghan capital.
Clearly, some analysts are creating a link between Gen Bajwa’s call to speed up IMF funding for Pakistan to this strike as in he made a deal to share intel for assistance.
The timing appears more of a coincidence in this instance given the killing of Zawahiri was something on the cards for over 20-years.
Terrorist organisations adhere to traditions where figureheads are important to recruit and plan and the elimination of one of the terrorist movement’s forefathers will undoubtedly strike a blow to the morale of the rank-and-file but not diminish appeal for hardliners.
The article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Recorder or its owners
The writer is a journalist and researcher. She has an MSc in Violence, Conflict and Development from SOAS. Her work explores security, identity, rights and human development, and war to peace transitions.