It is true that Zawahiri, like bin Laden, like his other colleagues in al-Qaeda’s 9/11 era leadership, chose violence and bear inescapable moral responsibility for murdering nearly 3000 of my neighbors here in New York. He used religion as a mechanism to justify violence and beatify the violent—you can find this all through his 2001 book Knights Under The Prophet’s Banner. It’s also worth noting that Biden’s recent abject performance before Mohammed bin Salman, his declaration in Jerusalem that he is a Zionist, his cultivation of Abdul Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, all prove Zawahiri a failure. America is in no substantive, material sense “out” of the Middle East despite his and his coconspirators’ attempts to drive it out with murder, or however useful that argument is in driving the U.S. closer to a war with Iran or facilitating the devastation of Yemen. Facing geopolitical competition from China, currently the U.S. seems desperate to recommit to the region, as cold wars recapitulate themselves. Zawahiri’s life yielded, we can say with finality now, nothing beyond reactionary violence.
But the fact is that the United States indeed chose to respond to 9/11 with (1) a war; (2) across the globe; (3) unlimited by time (4) or by a specific definition of the enemy. All of these choices, and all of the human and constitutional carnage downstream of them, were made and ratified by U.S. policymakers. You can decide, if you are so inclined, that any of these choices are merited. But there was nothing inevitable about any of them. They are choices, particularly now that Zawahiri’s killing takes away the final significant driver of 9/11, that the Biden administration continues to make, choices that have exposed the hollowness of Biden’s pretensions to a U.S. regime that “protect[s] the innocent, defend[s] liberty, and we keep the light of freedom burning.”
For there’s one last thing to observe about Ayman Zawahiri. The torture he experienced in Egyptian prisons after he was rounded up for involvement in the 1981 assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was a formative experience. From Lawrence Wright in 2002, recounting a moment in the early 1980s when Zawahiri declared himself:
The prisoners pull off their shoes and raise their robes to expose the marks of torture. Zawahiri talks about the torture that took place in the “dirty Egyptian jails . . . where we suffered the severest inhuman treatment. There they kicked us, they beat us, they whipped us with electric cables, they shocked us with electricity! They shocked us with electricity! And they used the wild dogs! And they used the wild dogs! And they hung us over the edges of the doors”—here he bends over to demonstrate—“with our hands tied at the back! They arrested the wives, the mothers, the fathers, the sisters, and the sons!”
How much more of this has the United States done, and sponsored, to untold numbers of people across the world, in the name of avenging 9/11? How many more Zawahiris have these American choices created? How many are yet to be born?