Zawahiri’s Death is Respite for India's Intel Fraternity, But There's No Room for Complacency
The article analyses the underlying links between the Taliban, the Pakistani state, and Al-Qaeda, the CIA’s successful drone operation in killing Zawahiri raises several questions about the future of Al-Qaeda, the impact on India, and the efficacy of the US intelligence network and future counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan.
By Abhinav Pandya
The US killed Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda supreme commander and one of the key masterminds of the September 11 attacks along with Osama Bin Laden, in a CIA-led drone strike on August 1, 2022, at a residential building in the posh Sherpura colony of Kabul city.
Following the attack, US President Joe Biden, in his televised remarks, said Zawahiri’s death “marked one more measure of closure” to the families of those who were killed in the 9/11 attacks. The attack has come almost a year after Americans hurriedly left in an abject surrender of Afghanistan to the Taliban.
Besides exposing the underlying links between the Taliban, the Pakistani state, and Al-Qaeda, the CIA’s successful drone operation in killing Zawahiri raises several questions about the future of Al-Qaeda, the impact on India, and the efficacy of the US intelligence network and future counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan.
AYMAN AL ZAWAHIRI: AN UNCHARISMATIC SUCCESSOR OF LADEN
A close associate of Laden, Zawahiri was an Egyptian surgeon before joining Al-Qaeda. His rise and association with the Al-Qaeda coincided with the US-led war on terror, of which the prime target was Al-Qaeda. In the years following the September 11 attacks, Al-Qaeda faced massive US backlash in the form of drone strikes and military operations in Afghanistan and also in West Asia, decimating a large segment of Al-Qaeda’s top leadership.
In his last few years, even Laden was making desperate attempts to exercise control over the Al-Qaeda affiliates and keep it united and motivated in the face of the US onslaught. Zawahiri succeeded Laden after the US marines killed him in a special operation at his Abbottabad hideout in 2011. However, he was not as charismatic as his predecessor.
In many quarters, he was regarded as a monotonous and meandering orator without robust religious credentials and battlefield experience, who could not provide strong leadership and gave space to other successor groups like ISIS. Allegedly, Zawahiri also failed in capitalizing upon the war and chaos unleashed in Syria and Iraq in the wake of the Arab Spring revolutions in West Asia which resulted in ISIS emerging as a front-running jihadist organisation.
Also, some controversies associated with his past, such as his alleged act of being a prison informer and his alleged role in creating a rift between Laden and his mentor Abdullah Azam, continued to tarnish his image. Hence, he carried an image of being a symbolic head bereft of any real authority and strategic direction for the Al-Qaeda.
However, after the decline of the main ISIS caliphate by 2018-19, perceptions about Zawahiri in the intelligence fraternity and counterterrorism scholars began to change. Contrary to his previous image of a weak successor, he was increasingly being perceived as a commander who navigated and steered Al-Qaeda during its worst phase when the group faced twin existential threats from the western military onslaught and the emergence of new and more lethal terrorist groups like ISIS.
In the face of the said twin threats, Zawahiri’s strategy to sustain the group’s existence and relevance were to create and nurture a string of regional affiliates like Al Shahab, the Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and the Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent.
Notably, the most recent affiliate, Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), formed in 2014 under the stewardship of Zawahiri, has not only successfully maintained its presence but has also been vigorously expanding its presence in India and Pakistan in recent years.
Another robust pillar of Zawahiri’s twin strategy was to exercise strategic restraint in Al-Qaeda’s mission of targeting the West, particularly the US, and project an image of a less brutal and moderately extremist pan-Islamist group vis-à-vis the much bloodier and violent ISIS which failed to gain sympathy among a large section of Muslims because of its unusually extremist and violent methods.
Post-2020, Al-Qaeda’s old ally, the Taliban, resurged and returned to power in which AQIS also fought on the behalf of Taliban. Taliban’s return further bolstered the image of Zawahiri. As regards the Al-Qaeda’s capability to orchestrate attacks in Western capitals, the UNSC’s sanctions monitoring committee had already warned that Al-Qaeda would be capable of launching such attacks by 2023.
Also, a senior Biden administration official told the AP that at the time of his death, Zawahiri was providing “strategic guidance” to Al-Qaeda and was considered a dangerous figure.
Zawahiri’s death has indeed left a succussion void in the Al-Qaeda hierarchy. Given his long experience since his involvement in the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania (1998) and respect in the group, Saif-al Adal, a former Egyptian army officer, and a member of Al-Qaeda’s Egyptian affiliate, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, is seen as the top contender.
He is known for his strategic acumen, explosives expertise, and robust battlefield experience. However, his current residence in Iran and restrictions on his movement are likely to present some hurdles to his smooth succession. The other contenders include Abdal Rahman al-Maghrebi, the head of Al-Qaeda’s media operations; leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb Abu Ubaydah Yusuf al-Anabi; and leader of Al Shabaab Ahmed Diriye.
Whoever succeeds Zawahiri will have to prove and establish himself as a capable leader to the Al-Qaeda affiliates in Africa, West Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. In a large measure, the future of the organisation depends on his capability to prove his mettle and keep the group cohesive and united.
Zawahiri’s death is unlikely to degrade significantly the attack capabilities of Al-Qaeda’s regional affiliates because Zawahiri was more of a figurehead giving a broad strategic direction. Most of these groups were functionally autonomous and, over the years, have enhanced their strike capabilities. Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin in West Africa and al Shabaab in Somalia have been the most active and robust Al-Qaeda affiliates.
They have largely been autonomous in most of the tactical and operational decision-making. However, they have not shown any substantial intent to strike western capitals. Al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula, the closest affiliate to Al-Qaeda’s Af-Pak-based central leadership has shown the clearest intent to attack the West; however, it has suffered major losses in the recent war in Yemen.
Also, in the longer term, Al-Qaeda’s strategy is likely to undergo a major shift depending on who succeeds Zawahiri. During its crisis phase over the last two decades following the 9/11 attacks, Al-Qaeda changed its goal from targeting the American mainland and the West to engaging in local jihad theatres through a series of local affiliate, to ease off the US counter-terrorism pressure.
However, with the Taliban’s return and ISIS’ decline, Al-Qaeda is likely to make a robust comeback which may manifest in the form of enhanced activities of its local affiliates and attacks on the US mainland. The likely successor, Saif-Al-Adal, brings forth a robust battlefield experience; hence it is highly likely that he will exert control, actively provide broad strategic guidance to local affiliates and orchestrate attacks on the Western capitals.
IMPACT ON INDIA AND US OPS IN AFGHANISTAN
Under Zawahiri’s leadership, Al-Qaeda developed a keen interest in India’s internal affairs and intended to capture the Muslim space by harnessing the communal fault lines. In his 2018 video, Zawahiri suggested that if attacks take place in mainland India — like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore — Kashmir will be liberated very soon.
Earlier, Bin Laden’s close friend and Jaish chief Masood Azhar also echoed the same sentiments in his 2000 video. In 2019 also, Zawahiri released a video calling for enervating jihad in Kashmir. His vision was to radicalise Muslims beyond Kashmir, in the Indian hinterland which is why he made Asim Umar from UP the head of AQIS.
In the recent Hijab row, Zawahiri intervened and spewed venom against India. Besides, in most issues like CAA-NRC, abrogation of Article 370, Al-Qaeda released tons of material through offline and online channels.
As per this author’s informed interlocutors, more recently, AQIS has been planning attacks against top-level BJP leaders and at religious sites in northern states like UP and Haryana. Hence, his death is indeed a respite for the Indian intelligence fraternity; however, there is not much room for complacency because in the past, Al-Qaeda has shown its capability and resilience to survive and flourish beyond the death of its commanders.
Also, if Saif al Adal becomes the chief and focuses more on staging attacks given his military bent of mind and experience, AQIS is likely to focus more on staging attacks on the Indian territory. The current polarised environment, widespread PFI network, and intense radicalization of a major segment of Muslims may come in handy in AQIS’s violent designs. Besides, it may act in coordination with the ISI and support extremist groups like PFI in organising communal riots in India.
Another crucial development for India is that with Zawahiri’s killing, Al-Qaeda’s ties with the Taliban and ISI stand exposed. Reportedly, he was shifted to Kabul’s posh locality after the Taliban’s return amply, suggesting the Taliban’s underlying ties with Al-Qaeda despite its promises not to shelter it.
Secondly, the very fact that he was living in the house of a top aide of Haqqanis, an ISI asset group, leaves no doubt about the heinous ties that ISI, Taliban, and Al-Qaeda have with each other. Hence, New Delhi needs to be careful in its dealing with the Taliban. Also, the US drone attack following the recent Pakistan raid on TTP strongholds in Taliban-controlled territory has left the Taliban exposed in terms of its vulnerability to drone attacks and its inability to protect terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and TTP.
Besides, in many quarters the attack will be seen as Taliban and ISI’s intelligence barter with the US in return of diplomatic recognition for Taliban and IMF’s support for Pakistan’s fledgling economy, including easing off the FATF pressure. The rumours are already afloat about a Pakistani general and a senior Afghan minister providing critical intelligence about Zawahiri’s locations. It is likely to sow seeds of distrust towards the Taliban and Pakistan. The Islamic State-Khurasan will try to leverage this against the Taliban and expand its base. Possibly, disgruntled Taliban and Al-Qaeda jihadis may join IS-K, which is undoubtedly going to exacerbate India’s worries.
Lastly, the successful drone strike lends some credence to the US claims of maintaining ‘over-the-horizon’ intelligence and counterterrorism capabilities. However, conclusive statements can be made only if the US conducts more such strikes in the future against IS-K.
Disclaimer: The article is the individual scholastic contribution of the author and does not necessarily reflect the organization’s viewpoint. The article was originally published by News18.