Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri was killed in a US drone strike in Kabul over the weekend. shook Americans, reminding them that Islamic extremists are still active. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, the rise of China, climate change and the COVID pandemic are just some of the many pressing issues that have pushed foreign terrorism into the rearview mirror.
And yet, as President Biden pointed out, America’s national security apparatus never forgets. “No matter how long it takes, wherever you hide,” he said Monday night, “if you pose a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out.”
But just how dangerous was Zawahiri? Will his death protect the Americans?
While the success of the manhunt demonstrates the necessary resolve against the terrorists attacking the US, the al-Qaeda left behind by Zawahiri has already been weakened by internal and external forces. After the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of the US in 2011 and after 9/11, she became a shadow of an organization that once commanded the world’s attention. A new leader may revive her fortunes somewhat, but al-Qaeda’s threat to the US will remain limited.
drone strikes, global intelligence campaign and the best defense of the homeland caused significant damage to the group, as well as struggle within the radical Islamist movement and the atrocities committed by his supporters about peaceful Muslims in Iraq and other countries. Key planners, fundraisers, instructors, and other lieutenants were killed, arrested, or forced to lie low, making it difficult to plan spectacular attacks or even maintain a consistent move.
In fact, al-Qaeda has not attacked the United States or Europe since 2005, an eternity for a terrorist group seeking world attention. Rival but related organizations such as the Islamic State, commonly known as ISIS, have also been undermined by concerted efforts to combat terrorism and infighting. ISIS’s loss of territorial control in Iraq and Syria was a devastating blow to a group whose brand was focused on establishing a genuine caliphate ruled by Islamic law.
Under the uncharismatic Zawahiri, al-Qaeda survived but did not thrive. He failed to stop ISIS from forcibly rejecting his leadership and proved boring to many would-be recruits. Bin Laden’s number. 2 could claim one benefit during his tenure, expanding the group, often through the circulation of terrorist groups in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. to al-Qaeda affiliates.
Some of these offshoots — especially the Yemeni branch known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — have inspired and may even have orchestrated attacks against the West, including the most recent attack in the United States in Florida in December 2019. Saudi military trainee, killed three and wounded eight at a naval base before being killed. According to FBI Director Christopher A. Ray, the intern was “more than inspired” by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, “sharing plans and tactics with her.”
However, most of the other affiliated groups focus on civil wars and other local issues. They threaten regional stability but are less of a threat to US AQAP, whose leader was killed in a US drone strike months after the Florida attack and is said to be disintegrating.
lone wolf attacks how Explosion at the Boston Marathonwhen self-radicalized individuals act without direction from the organization remain a problem, but perpetrators tend to be less trained and therefore less lethal.
Afghanistan under the Taliban is another concern, as evidenced by the fact that Zawahiri has taken refuge in Kabul, and the presence of terrorists there should remain a priority for intelligence. However, it does not follow that a more pragmatic Taliban seeking Western aid and funding will allow Afghanistan to become a base for training camps and recruits, as it did in the 1990s. In addition, the strike on Zawahiri shows that US counterterrorism efforts, despite an American exodus in 2021, can still be devastatingly effective.
Much depends on the next generation of Islamic radicals. A new al-Qaeda or ISIS leader looking to breathe new life into his movement may try to attract donors and recruits by conducting high-profile operations in the West.
However, ongoing counterterrorism efforts are making it difficult for another 9/11 attack or an attack like the 2015 Paris attack to be one of the reasons al-Qaeda turned to its affiliates’ local campaigns in the first place. It’s not easy to command traffic when your organization is under siege. ISIS is an example. It collapsed because of a succession of unimpressive leaders, each of whom spent more time in hiding than leading his followers.
Finally, the threat posed by al-Qaeda and similar organizations will depend on whether a new cause makes them relevant again. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 electrified the Muslim world and confirmed al-Qaeda’s argument that the United States is seeking regional dominance. After 2011, the Syrian civil war and the caliphate declared by ISIS in 2014 led to huge surge worldwide in recruitment and support for Islamic militants.
Today, civil wars in Yemen, Somalia, and the Maghreb involve local fighters, but they have limited motivating appeal on a global scale. Without another stimulus from Iraq or Syria, al-Qaeda and like-minded groups could disappear even more into yesterday’s news.
Daniel Byman is Professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and Senior Fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. @dbyman