It says something about the state of jihadism today that more counterterrorism analysts hung on every word uttered by Ayman al Zawahiri than did the terrorists he ostensibly commanded.
The killing of the former leader of al Qaeda by a CIA drone attack in a house in Kabul, Afghanistan, is a symbolic victory for President Joe Biden. Zawahiri is said to have played a central role in the planning of the 9/11 attacks and generally to have contributed to the further radicalization of jihadists in the wake of the war against the Soviets in the 1980s. His killing also coincided with the first anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August and came just two weeks after the United Nations issued a major report asserting Zawahiri was still alive and that his group was resurging. For these reasons, the elimination of Zawahiri is good news all around and a clear win for the Biden administration, including to show that the global war on terror continues by stealth without the need for American troops on the ground.
In the real world, though, Zawahiri stopped being relevant years ago. During his decadelong tenure at the helm of the international terrorist group, he managed to lose control of two of the key jihadist franchises because he was unable to mediate differences between them and because he was out of touch with the fast-moving and momentous events affecting his supposed followers on the ground everywhere in the region. His group of jihadist elders has been hollowed out, and many of its former supporters grew either suspicious of its links to countries like Iran or frustrated with its inability to lead. [Continue reading…]