Monday night, the president of the United States, Joe Biden, announced the death of the leader of Al-Qaeda. The Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed overnight from Saturday to Sunday in Afghanistan by an American drone strike. But what does the death of this historic jihadist mean for Al-Qaida? 20 minutes examines the implications of eliminating this jihadist leader.
Who is Ayman Al-Zawahiri and why is his death so symbolic?
Ayman al-Zawahiri is one of the most wanted terrorists in the world. The United States has promised 25 million dollars for any information that can locate him. He took the head of Al-Qaeda in 2011, after the death of Osama bin Laden, killed by an American commando in Pakistan. Undiscovered for more than ten years, he is considered one of the masterminds of the September 11 attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people in the United States.
“Zawahiri is more than a symbol of contemporary terrorism, he is one of the founders of international Islamist terrorism with bin Laden and a character who has marked the last thirty years of terrorism”, points out Mathieu Guidère. Expert in the field and author ofAtlas of Islamist Terrorism, he recalled that Ayman al-Zawahiri is a “historical figure of Islamism”, who has been on the jihadist scene for more than forty years.
In addition, Ayman al-Zawahiri is “the one who knighted and gave the green light to almost all branches of Al-Qaeda”, added Mathieu Guidère. These branches, such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqmi) or Al-Qaeda in Iraq, allow terrorist organizations to have local roots.
What does this change for Al-Qaida and Islamist terrorism?
“This is a blow for the central Al-Qaeda”, assures Mathieu Guidère, who remembers that finding a leader of the “height” of Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has worked for forty years will be very difficult . Especially since bin Laden was killed in 2011 and the number 3 of the organization in 2020. “The central command of Al-Qaeda is almost decimated” and the death of its leader foreshadows “probably the end of the parent company of the organization “.
“For the branches, there is no direct impact but there is a risk that they will no longer be coordinated because he chooses the overall strategy of the organization,” added the terrorism expert. Especially since Ayman al-Zawahiri, who knighted these branches, holds contacts and authority that a possible successor could not. Because of this, “they may focus on local and no longer global terrorism”, deciphers Mathieu Guidère.
Now, Al-Qaeda will observe forty days of mourning before looking for a successor, explained Mathieu Guidère who recalled that in general a terrorist leader “feels” his successor on the left he will die. “In September, there should be a new name,” he added. But, regardless of that name, he will certainly act as a dwarf in front of the historical leader who has a “branded generation of terrorists”.
What consequences for the relationship between Washington and Kabul?
According to the Americans, Ayman al-Zawahiri lives in a three-story house in Sherpur, a wealthy neighborhood in the center of the Afghan capital, where many villas are occupied by high-ranking officers and commanders of Taliban. Its presence in Kabul constitutes a “clear violation” of the agreements concluded in Doha in 2020 with the Taliban, who plan not to welcome Al-Qaida on their soil, said the Secretary of State of American Antony Blinken.
The spokesman of the Taliban, Zabihullah Mujahid, for his part, accused the United States of undermining these agreements, by conducting a strike on their territory. “These declarations are expected in the diplomatic game”, explained Mathieu Guidere. “You don’t do an operation like this without inside information. It took months of intelligence, people in the area and above all no one warned the target,” the terrorism expert listed. So the Taliban is likely to abandon Al-Qaeda, as Washington has clearly demanded. “They try to avoid confrontation with the West, especially with the Americans, and pass the moderates in the face of the Islamic State that carries out attacks against them”, explained the teacher-researcher.
Because in the region, like many others, Al-Qaeda is gradually giving way to IS, which has positioned itself as the “true flag of terrorism” in the country. And if the elimination of Al-Qaeda’s number one is a real victory for the United States, which seeks to punish September 11, it creates a vacuum. However, Mathieu Guidere points out, “terrorism hates a vacuum: if you weaken one organization, you mechanically contribute to strengthening another”.