The Surgeon, The Terrorist, and The Spector


On July 31, 2022, downtown Kabul was shaken by the sound of a blast. Twitter users rushed to debate the nature and intensity of the blast. The common perception was that of some rocket or a conventional bomb. No one could imagine it being a bladed hellfire missile with a terror-wielding surgeon’s name on it.[1]

The precision strike was conducted at 9:48 p.m. ET on Saturday and was sanctioned by Biden following a lengthy series of meeting with his cabinet and advisors. This strike is of great importance not only because it neutralized the Trotsky of international militant Islam; but rather due to its timing, form, and manner.

The Surgeon

Before diving into the strike’s significance, one must briefly discuss Al-Zawahiri himself and Al-Qaeda. Following the humiliating defeat during the six-day war of 1967, many young Egyptians found themselves lost and sought answers in radical violence. Al-Zawahiri found himself in the middle of this response, so to say, be it from his involvement in the assassination attempt of former Egyptian President Muḥammad Anwar Sādāt in 1981 to joining the Soviet-Afghan war as a surgeon in the 1980s and 1990s.

The Terrorist

Al-Zawahiri had gathered a considerable following of hardliners by the end of the Soviet-Afghan war. Chief among them was the Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden. Both were a part of the Mujahideen; however, it was not till the end of the war that they joined forces with their old mentor Abdullah Azzam or more commonly known as the fighting Sheikh and showed allegiance to his organization “Maktab Al-Khadamat, also known as Al-Qaeda Al-Sulbah (The Firm Base). After Azzam’s assassination in 1989, both Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri inherited the organization.

Al-Zawahiri was Bin Laden’s number two in Al-Qaeda, managing the organization’s operations until Bin Laden died in 2011. He inherited the organization after him and resumed operations.

Al-Qaeda’s operational strength had been shrinking for the last decade; however, it still possessed the capacity to inflict harm under isolated attacks. This may be the case in regards to Al-Qaeda’s threat to the west; however, vassal groups such as Al-Shabab[2] whom wield significant sway in south-central Somalia pose a considerable threat.

Zawahiri had constantly been moving since the US launched its military effort in Afghanistan in 2001. His death was claimed several times in the past two decades; however, to his opponents’ dismay, he would resurface every time.

The Spector

In a press release by the state department of the USA, it stated that “By hosting and sheltering the leader of al Qa’ida in Kabul, the Taliban grossly violated the Doha Agreement and repeated assurances to the world that they would not allow Afghan territory to be used by terrorists to threaten the security of other countries.”[3] The Biden administration decided to neutralize Al-Zawahiri by employing a Reaper Drone.

The timing of the attack is interesting to look at as it occurred almost a year after the US withdrew from Afghanistan. However, the Biden administration had considered over-the-horizon operations since the hasty withdrawal did not play its card. The successful strike did little in terms of decreasing the operational capabilities of Al Qaeda as Zawahiri now served as a symbolic figure. Besides providing a figurative closer to 9/11, the strike yielded two main objectives.

Firstly, it gave much-needed credibility to the Bidden administration regarding the over-the-horizon capabilities that Biden had long advocated for. The strike also did not hurt Biden’s support base in the mainland USA. Secondly, it affirmed America’s hegemonic posture in light of the ongoing Russia Ukraine war and the growing tensions in the Asia Pacific region with China’s growing irritation at the Taiwanese status quo.[4]

Impact on Al Qaeda

When it comes to the strike’s effect on the future of Al-Qaeda as an organization, a fair argument can be made in the negative. Ibrahim Al-Marashi, an associate professor at the Department of History, California State University, in an op-ed for Al-Jazeera, demonstrates how Al-Zawahiri ensured that the organization would be capable of outliving him. He further provides three lines of arguments for this.

Firstly, it needs to be noted that Al-Qaeda under Al-Zawahiri adopted a very well-defined and “self-sufficient bureaucratic system, with clear chains of command.”[5] furthermore, as mentioned earlier, the organization operates in a modular or what Al Marashi describes as a franchising model with self-sufficient and self-governing entities such as Al-Shabab. Such autonomy may carry on without being directly affected by the death of Al-Zawahiri.

The second line of argument that is presented is regarding an enduring ideology. The literalist militant interpretation of Islam is not an accolade Al-Qaeda can claim to be their own. Instead, it has existed for centuries and will do so in the foreseeable future. Therefore, Al-Qaeda or any similar entity will always be able to attract fringe elements. The death of Al-Zawahiri does little to curb the radical interpretation of Islamic scriptures.

The third argument relates to the social and political capital Al-Qaeda has raised over the years. Under Al-Zawahiri, the militant group was driven to garner communal support, which led to a sympathetic attitude from the local host. Such support will not diminish by the death of Zawahiri.

Problems for the Taliban

For the de facto Afghan government, neutralizing Al-Qaeda’s head in downtown Kabul may give birth to more obstacles in the long march to international recognition. The Taliban are keen to develop the war-torn economy, an unconceivable goal without international support. The killing of Al-Zawahiri will impact US Taliban relations; however, it can be argued that this will not be a long-term issue owing to two factors. Firstly, it is in the Taliban’s interest to develop a working relationship with the US and the wider world, and secondly, the US and the wider international community are keen to ensure a stable government in Afghanistan to curb the rise of organizations such as the Islamic State.

The Biden administration scored much-needed points with the neutralization of Al-Zawahiri; however, the impact of his death will not be astronomical. Furthermore, this adds to the obstacles the de facto Afghan government has to deal with to assimilate with the wider world. The real impact of the events of July 31 can be seen in the change in the style of warfare, where we see a fast shift towards using over-the-horizon capabilities.


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