We should not be lulled into celebratory complacency. A week on from the killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qa’ida’s erstwhile leader and operational mastermind, the group is likely to prove a more imminent threat than at any point in the decade of his tenure in charge.
Much attention has focused on al-Zawahiri’s likely successor and current al-Qa’ida military chief Saif al-Adl. He is a younger, bolder and more operationally focused terrorist operative, whose experience as an intelligence and security leader will make him an extremely dangerous emir.
Wanted by the US government in connection with the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people in 1998, al-Adl has been in Iran since at least 2003, remaining close to the Afghan border.
However, much more insidious than the threat of a new leader is the buried lead in the many articles that have been written rejoicing in al-Zawahiri’s death. He was not discovered hiding in some remote and operationally disconnected region of the Middle East, such as one might expect of a man with a $25m bounty on his head. He was killed in broad daylight, on a balcony in the centre of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.
This is the most definitive evidence yet of the tight bond between al-Qa’ida and the Taliban in Afghanistan. It suggests al-Qa’ida are in an operationally stronger position than many had expected, and from this position of power they are likely to continue to build and consolidate their resources in the months and years to come. Simultaneously, it highlights the Taliban’s continued ties to terror groups.
Al-Qa’ida are being offered by the Taliban a base of operations, which, for their leadership, more than offsets the loss of al-Zawahiri
Next week marks a full year since the Taliban overthrew the internationally recognised government of Afghanistan. In the weeks following the fall of Kabul, the Taliban went on a PR-offensive, claiming to be a different government to the tyrants that had previously ruled in their name 20 years earlier. They would continue to be uncompromising in their enforcement of a domestic Islamist theocracy, but their days of giving sanctuary to al-Qa’ida’s leaders were over.
Now, the realities of the two group’s continued relationship have been laid bare. Al-Zawahiri was killed in Kabul, in a home owned by Sirajuddin Haqqani, the current acting Interior Minister of Afghanistan and the head of the Haqqani network, an independent terrorist organisation that has long acted as the go-between for Taliban and al-Qa’ida operatives.
After decades spent planning haphazard attacks from disparate locations around the globe, al-Qa’ida are being offered by the Taliban a base of operations, which, for their leadership, more than offsets the loss of al-Zawahiri. And this in direct contravention of a US-Taliban agreement brokered in Qatar in 2020 by which the US agreed to withdraw their troops on condition that the Taliban cut all ties with al-Qa’ida or any other extremist groups.
Operations such as the one which killed al-Zawahiri take considerable time, meticulous planning, sophisticated intelligence and resources to carry out. That is why they are so rare. Consequently, while they deserve to be celebrated when they are effective, we cannot rely on them as a means of undermining the influence of a group as well organised as al-Qa’ida.
From the operational safe haven they have been granted in Taliban-run Afghanistan, al-Qa’ida will soon fill al-Zawahiri’s shoes, and continue the process of rebuilding to their former strength. To undermine this process fundamentally will require a robust, structured international response.
Now that the sham of a new, reformed, “moderate” Taliban has been comprehensively exposed — just ask any would-be schoolgirl or previously educated woman in Afghanistan if you’re in any doubt — at the very least, international sanctions on Afghanistan must be strengthened, lest al-Qa’ida benefit from the financial windfall that the Taliban would enjoy from a renewed flow of international trade. Of course humanitarian assistance to the benighted, long-suffering people of Afghanistan must continue and be targeted to benefit the victims of the Taliban not the oppressors.
Al-Zawahiri left behind, ably assisted by Taliban Interior Minister Haqqani, an extensive worldwide network of dangerous jihadists committed to attacking European and Western targets. To prevent his successor installing himself in Afghanistan with the rest of the senior al-Qa’ida leadership, the West must coordinate a robust response to prevent the return of the terror group by a rigorous policing of Afghan borders.
Doing this today is the best opportunity we have to prevent Saif al-Adl and his cohorts from picking up where al-Zawahiri left off.
Ivor Roberts is a senior adviser to the Counter Extremism Project, former British Ambassador to Yugoslavia, Ireland and Italy, and former head of counter-terrorism at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office