The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Zawahiri’s killing and the bleak legacy of the ‘war on terror’


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When the United States killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, the act brought about a moment of national catharsis. Nearly a decade after carrying out the deadliest single attack on U.S. soil, al-Qaeda’s leader had been apprehended in his Pakistani hideaway and slain. It was an ignominious end for a militant commander whose shadow had loomed over the world and whose actions ushered in a new geopolitical era — the age of the U.S.-declared “war on terror.”

Once news broke of bin Laden’s death, Americans celebrated on the streets of major cities. In baseball stadiums and college campuses, large crowds chanted, “U-S-A!” The photograph of President Barack Obama, surrounded by his closest advisers as they watched the Navy SEAL mission go into motion, quickly went viral. It was hailed as a “photo for the ages,” an iconic image of American triumph.

President Biden, then Obama’s vice president, was present in that picture. So, too, was current Secretary of State Antony Blinken. And for all the exultation they may have felt 11 years ago, they were unlikely to feel the same this weekend, in the aftermath of the CIA drone strike that killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s former deputy.

Zawahiri was, after all, standing on the balcony of a safe house in an upscale neighborhood in Kabul, the Afghan capital which U.S. forces had chaotically vacated last year in a humiliation that will haunt Biden’s legacy for years to come. The victorious Taliban had provided assurances that their days of abetting al-Qaeda terrorists were over, but those commitments were never worth taking at face value and were made all the more suspect by the factionalism and divisions among the Islamist militants.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda leader, killed at 71

In remarks announcing Zawahiri’s death, Biden cited the United States’ ongoing prosecution of its war against Islamist terror groups. “The United States continues to demonstrate its resolve and capacity to defend Americans from those who seek to do it harm,” Biden said, making it “clear again [that] no matter how long it takes, no matter how you hide … the United States will find you and seek you out.”

Analysts see in the strike that took out Zawahiri a clear demonstration of the “over the horizon” capability that Biden touted when justifying his decision to hasten the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan last year. Boots on the ground matter less when you can rain Hellfire missiles down on your enemies from drones. The strike was “a major counterterrorism achievement — and a much-needed triumph for the Biden administration, for whom anything to do with Afghanistan has become an issue of acute discomfort,” noted the Middle East Institute’s Charles Lister.

But it’s worth asking what it achieved. Zawahiri, 71, was a diminished figure — influential, no doubt, but far removed from the days when he plotted terrorist attacks that led to thousands of American and non-American deaths. Al-Qaeda itself is a shadow of its former self and now faces a potential succession crisis. Its militant threat remains, diffused and scattered across the world through a range of splinter groups.

“Lacking bin Laden’s loyal following, Zawahiri tried to command far-flung terrorist groups that often ignored his decrees and rejected his advice,” my colleagues wrote. “In particular, he was overshadowed by the rise of the Islamic State and its bloody dominion for several years over parts of Syria and Iraq.”

Taliban facing backlash after U.S. drone strike against al-Qaeda leader

The U.S. operation to kill Zawahiri can’t only be seen as evidence of successful pinpoint counterterrorism tactics, but a reminder of the far broader and more complicated legacy of the war on terror. Al-Qaeda is “weaker than it was on Friday, but parsing what exactly that means is academic,” wrote Spencer Ackerman, author “Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump,” on Monday. “Far more substantial is the reality that the apparatus of the War on Terror, with the exception of the Afghanistan War, the original CIA torture program and Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, remains in place.”

U.S. troops remain on the ground in a host of Middle Eastern and African countries. U.S. drone strikes continue across a wide swath of the planet, from West Africa to South Asia. Airwars, a watchdog group, estimates that U.S. drone and airstrikes have killed some 22,000 to 48,000 civilians since Sept. 11, 2001 — a figure exponentially larger than that of the U.S. citizens slain by bin Laden and Zawahiri’s violent plots.

And the legacy of the U.S. role in Afghanistan — two decades worth of spilled blood and treasure, only for the Taliban to surge back to power — clouds all other assessments. “I don’t know how to weigh the balance and come up with a final reckoning, but I know that this revenge is sour,” wrote George Packer in the Atlantic, analyzing the killing of Zawahiri. “It’s particularly sour when you think about the circumstances of Zawahiri’s death.”

The United States could only locate and take out Zawahiri because he was ensconced in an Afghan capital that the United States and its allies had effectively ceded to the Taliban. The pathos and irony of it all are hard to ignore. “Losing the war made it easier to kill Ayman al-Zawahiri,” Ackerman wrote.

What it means going forward is equally bleak. The Taliban, knee-deep in a humanitarian emergency both of their own and the Biden administration’s making, denounced the strike as an infringement of Afghan sovereignty. They may be compelled to take a more antagonistic stance.

“The Taliban are in deep political trouble now, and they are going to face pressure to retaliate. The relationship they have with al-Qaeda and other jihadi groups remains very strong,” Asfandyar Mir, an expert on Islamic extremism at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, told my colleague Pamela Constable. “I think we should brace for impact.”

For ordinary Afghans, reeling amid the economic implosion of their country, it spells only more hardship.

“We have so many worries already. For a whole year, there have been no jobs, no business, no activity. But at least the fighting was over. The Taliban was in charge, and there was good security,” said a resident of the Sherpur neighborhood, where the drone struck, who gave his name to my colleagues as Hakimullah. “Now, suddenly, this attack happens, and everyone is frightened again.”