The killing of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul on Sunday morning local time opens up two diametrically opposite possibilities about the role that the current Taliban government might have played in the action.
The popular wisdom is that Zawahiri’s presence in the capital Kabul was the clearest evidence that the relations between the Taliban and Al Qaeda leadership are far from over and, in fact, may even have revived significantly. How else could the Al Qaeda boss and one of the two main plotters of September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against America have been safely living in Kabul? That is a valid question and may overwhelm the second possibility.
The fact that the U.S. without any direct military presence in Kabul on the ground could carry out a precise over-the-horizon drone strike reportedly killing Zawahiri in the balcony of his safehouse may point to some internal betrayal. After all there was a price tag of $25 million since 1998 on his head, an amount large enough for someone in a cash-strapped Taliban government to leak the specifics of his whereabouts.
This is of course speculation, but it is not altogether inconceivable that some elements within the Taliban might have chosen to let it be known to the U.S. intelligence about Zawahiri’s precise coordinates as a quid pro quo to establish some credibility in Washington. It is entirely possible that the CIA has informants within the Taliban.
However, in a statement, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid was quoted as confirming that a strike did take place but strongly condemned it, describing it a violation of “international principles.”
The 71-year-old Zawahiri, once a successful Egyptian surgeon hailing from a prominent family, was a joint founder of the Al Qaeda along with Osama bin Laden, who was killed in a special U.S. raid on a safehouse in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 21, 2011. Despite the recent diminishment in the terrorist group, the U.S. saw it and Zawahiri as a continuing existential threat.
In an address to the nation President Joe Biden, battling a rebounded COVID infection, said, “Now justice has been delivered, and this terrorist leader is no more. We never back down.”
For Biden particularly, the Zawahiri killing is a signature achievement considering his decision to completely withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by August 30 last year turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. The precipitous withdrawal was a debacle with many Afghans overrunning the Kabul airport’s runway to get on the last flights departing from the country.
Although it is a symbolically huge kill for Washington, it is not clear how effective Zawahiri had been as the Al Qaeda leader. There were reports of him having become more aggressive in his propaganda war against America in recent few months, perhaps sanguine in the knowledge that the Taliban government was looking out for him. Since he took over the Al Qaeda after bin Laden’s killing eleven years ago, he was not quite seen to be in the same league as the latter in his messianic appeal for his followers as well the ability to inspire.
Since the U.S. withdrawal in August last year Afghanistan has been steadily disappearing from media glare but the Zawahiri killing is expected to reignite some interest in the country. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, now entering its sixth month, completely pushed Afghanistan from the headlines. As the Ukraine invasion drags on, there are signs that it too is losing traction in the mainstream U.S. media.
But for the Zawahiri killing the mainstream media has become animated about the rising tensions between America and China particularly triggered by Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s scheduled visit to Taiwan. China considers Taiwan to be part of its territory and has been flexing its military muscles around it. With the expectations that Pelosi will visit Taiwan, Beijing is making some bellicose statements against Washington.