Analysis |

With Zawahiri Killing, America Shows That Top Terrorists Are Always a Target

The assassination of Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul is further proof that the Americans can strike back wherever they choose, even if the climate crisis, China and Russia are their main focus

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A screenshot shows Ayman al-Zawahiri as he gives a eulogy for slain Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in 2011.
A screenshot shows Ayman al-Zawahiri as he gives a eulogy for slain Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in 2011.Credit: Site Intelligence Group/AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Joe Biden – the president can change, but the war machine built in the United States stays the same. The Americans have great patience, unlimited time and resources, and extensive operational and intelligence capabilities. In the end, the world’s top terrorists will die in U.S. strikes.

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It happened Sunday to Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, as it happened to his predecessor Osama bin Laden, to the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and to Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force. The message from Washington is clear: They’re all marked men, however long it may take.

There is value in merely projecting American power in Kabul after the embarrassing panicked flight from the Afghan capital last year (regardless of the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw forces from the country to end a 20-year war).

The fact that Zawahiri was hosted by the Taliban leadership is also a clear, and perhaps not particularly surprising, violation of the agreement the Trump administration signed in Doha, Qatar, with the Taliban to regulate the cessation of hostilities in Afghanistan. In that deal, the Taliban pledged not to support terrorist organizations.

Joe Biden speaking at the White House on Monday after U.S. forces killed Al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul.Credit: Jim Watson/AP

Zawahiri himself was “bin Laden’s Himmler,” the acclaimed journalist George Packer wrote on the The Atlantic’s website on Monday. As he put it, “Every organization devoted to mass death needs a charmless, bespectacled, blank-eyed chief operating officer who inspires no one but keeps the gears of murder turning.”

Packer, who saw up close Al-Qaida’s murderousness in Iraq after the catastrophic U.S. invasion, wrote that while Zawahiri’s death was “just revenge for the 3,000 innocents killed by” the organization on 9/11, it left him cold. “Revenge is sour because it always comes too late” – too late for Zawahiri’s victims in the United States in 2001, and too late for the thousands of innocent Muslims who have been murdered by Al-Qaida.

The days when Al-Qaida and the Islamic State hit the West almost whenever they wanted are long gone. Over 15 years, Islamic extremists carried out mass terrorist attacks in Europe – in Paris, London, Istanbul, Brussels and many other cities. (The United States was almost untouched after 9/11.) But the impact of the two organizations ebbed after the weakening of Al-Qaida following bin Laden’s assassination in 2011 and especially after the collapse of the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate in northern Iraq and eastern Syria in 2017.

Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri in an interview with a Pakistani journalist in an image supplied by the Dawn newspaper in November 2001.Credit: Daily Dawn/Reuters

From the moment the jihadist movement moved from Europe to the battlefields of the Middle East and back, the number of attacks slowly decreased. Other threats have risen to the top of the West’s agenda: the pandemic, the climate crisis, the competition with China and now also Russia’s brutal aggression in Ukraine. The United States, accordingly, has reduced its military involvement in the Middle East, though it hasn’t stopped settling old scores, as was proved this week once again in Kabul.

Yoram Schweitzer, a respected expert on terrorism at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, told Haaretz Tuesday that the Americans never let up on Zawahiri, even though his organization has focused on the “periphery” in recent years – Muslim-majority areas far from Western countries. Schweitzer believes that Al-Qaida will continue its terrorist activities and that the front-runner to succeed Zawahiri is Saif al-Adl, a skilled operations man who initially headed bin Laden’s security team. In later years he was imprisoned by the Iranians, before his release in 2015. There is speculation that he too is currently in Afghanistan.

Schweitzer says that while Zawahiri’s eventual successor may seek revenge on Western soil, the ability to do so is questionable. Al-Qaida, he notes, never avenged the death of its founder, bin Laden. Zawahiri himself began as the leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which merged with Al-Qaida in the late 1990s. He even spent time in prison in Egypt.

Afghans and U.S. Marines at the Kabul airport in August.Credit: U.S. Department of Defense/AP

After bin Laden’s death, Zawahiri distributed many propaganda tapes and, despite the shocks the organization suffered with the rise of the Islamic State in 2014, he managed to maintain the alliances with Al-Qaida affiliates throughout the Muslim world. It was these groups that carried out most of the attacks for the organization in the following years.

What does all this mean for Israel? While Al-Qaida and the Islamic State have attacked Jewish targets abroad over the years, Israel has never been a main focus. As Israel sees it, the ladder of threats is clear. At the top are Palestinian terrorism in the West Bank and the Lebanese – and sometimes Palestinian – terrorism that’s financed and directed by Iran.

The danger from the two jihadi organizations is reflected mainly in their web of online incitement, which occasionally ensnares local activists. Most of these are Arab Israelis, with Palestinians accounting for a small minority.

This was the case for the three perpetrators of two of the most recent terror attacks in Israel – the stabbing and ramming attack in Be’er Sheva and the shooting attack in Hadera, both in March. Two of the assailants even served prison sentences in the past and were on the watch list of the Shin Bet security service. Apparently they weren’t under sufficiently close watch.

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