How dangerous is al-Qaeda now?

Killing of leader Ayman al-Zawahiri ‘expected to degrade the terror group’s ability to operate’

Osama bin Laden (centre) and Ayman al-Zawahiri (left) in 1998
Osama bin Laden (centre) and Ayman al-Zawahiri (left) in 1998
(Image credit: Getty Images)

An American drone strike has killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, one of the masterminds behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks over two decades ago and leader of al-Qaeda.

US officials confirmed the 71-year-old had been killed in a drone strike while standing on the balcony of a safe house in the Afghan capital Kabul on Sunday.

President Joe Biden said that since taking over as leader of the terrorist group in 2011 after the killing of Osama bin Laden, al-Zawahiri had “coordinated al-Qaeda’s branches and all around the world, including setting priorities for providing operational guidance and calling for and inspired attacks against US targets”.

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“Now justice has been delivered and this terrorist leader is no more,” he added.

What the papers said

The early morning strike in the heart of downtown Kabul “capped a 21-year manhunt for an Egyptian radical who more than anyone besides Bin Laden was deemed responsible for the deadliest foreign attack on the United States in modern times and never gave up targeting Americans”, said The New York Times.

Responsible for reshaping al-Qaeda “from a centralised planner of terror attacks into the head of a network”, said The Guardian, he led the creation of autonomous branches that carried out attacks across Middle East, north Africa, Asia and Europe, including the 2004 train bombings in Madrid and the 2005 7/7 bombings in London.

Often described as the ideological and logistical brains behind al-Qaeda, “his death marks the biggest blow to the terrorist group since bin Laden was killed in 2011,” said The Telegraph.

There is also “deep symbolism” in the killing of al-Zawahiri, said CNN, and his death “represents a significant moment for Biden and his wobbling presidency”.

While the drone attack has “raised immediate questions about the terrorist leader’s presence in Afghanistan” a year after Biden withdrew all American forces, clearing the way for the Taliban to recapture control of the country, “the success of the first strike since the withdrawal without American forces actually on the ground will bolster Biden’s argument that the US can still wage war against terrorist organisations without the major deployments of ground forces that characterised the first two decades after 9/11”, said The New York Times.

What next?

The Guardian said the strike is “likely to lead to greater disarray within the organisation than did Bin Laden’s death in 2011, since it is far less clear who his successor would be”.

Yet even in the decade since Bin Laden’s death, al-Zawahiri had become a “remote and marginal figure, only occasionally issuing messages”, said the BBC.

The truth is that under his leadership, “the terrorist network had seen a decline from its previous notoriety”, reported The Telegraph, failing “to conduct the scale of terrorist attacks in the US and Europe it once had, in part, analysts have argued, because he lacked bin Laden's charisma”.

“The US will herald his death as a victory, particularly after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, but al-Zawahiri held relatively little sway as new groups and movements such as Islamic State have become increasingly influential,” the BBC said, adding that “a new al-Qaeda leader will no doubt emerge, but he will likely have even less influence than his predecessor.”

In recent years, al-Qaeda has managed to regroup, argued The Times, “and spread its influence in other parts of the world, especially in Africa”.

However, the death of its high-profile leader, who had a direct link back to both Bin Laden and its post-9/11 heyday, is “expected to degrade the terror group’s ability to operate”, reported CNBC. Former CIA director and defence secretary Leon Panetta told CNN that the loss of al-Zawahiri means al-Qaeda no longer has the leadership structure to pose a threat to the US or its allies.

In an increasingly polarised America, his death “could offer a rare moment of unity”, said CNN. “Still, any satisfaction over the killing of al-Zawahiri is likely to be soon overtaken by a more multilayered and urgent US conundrum abroad – the possibility of a standoff over Taiwan that threatens to erupt even as the US wages an effective proxy war against Russia in Ukraine.”

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