The targeted assassination by the Americans of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the post-Osama bin Laden leader of Al-Qaida and key plotter of the 9/11 terror attacks, is at one level a demonstration of the persistence and tenacity of the country’s counterterrorism effort globally.
But, as security expert Vanda FelbabBrown asks, what does it tell us about terrorism ~ and the fight against it ~ in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan? The fact that Zawahiri was hit in the heart of a posh Kabul locality where senior Taliban commanders also have their residences, and where he was safely ensconced for a while, make the parallel with the US special forces hit on Laden in May 2011 eerily similar.
Osama bin Laden too was living comfortably in the cantonment town of Abbottabad where senior Pakistani military officers and intelligence officials had sprawling homes while Islamabad stoutly denied it had any knowledge about the whereabouts of the most wanted man in the world then.
There is some talk, in this context, that in an attempt to make amends with Washington, the Pakistani establishment ~ which is dealing with an economy in a downward spiral and political instability ~ actively aided the Americans in the killing Zahirwai.
In return, goes the theory, Pakistan was assured of help with its bailout package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). It is certainly true that Pakistan’s intelligence agencies know the situation in Afghanistan better than most given their proxies in the Taliban are in positions of power in Kabul.
In fact, the house in which Zawahiri was killed reportedly belongs to a senior aide of the Afghan Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, a longstanding ally of the Pakistan Army and the ISI.
The Pakistan-Taliban connect and the duplicity of the regime in Kabul which had promised not to let Afghan soil be used for terrorism when it took power should surprise nobody.
FelbabBrown notes: “The strong, persistent affinity between Al-Qaida and the Taliban… has helped the former retain its presence in Afghanistan since 2001… As late as in 2015, Al-Qaida was operating large training camps across the country.” The larger message, that terrorism continues to be an integral part of state policy for the Taliban and its Pakistani patrons, ought to concern the region and the world.
The past five years may have seen a degradation of Al-Qaida’s operational capabilities, and Zawahiri could well have outlived his utility for the radicals whose hatred of the West, non-Muslim, and even non-Sunni populations is premised on a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam and is deeply ideological.
But for every Al-Qaida which is no longer a threat and each Zawahiri killed, there are a dozen other terror groups and leaders ~ including, ironically, many backed by the Haqqani network which itself controls the Afghan Interior Ministry ~ biding their time and using the freedom to operate freely.