July 31st 2022. Kabul, Afghanistan. Ayman al-Zawahiri is killed by an American drone strike. His death is described as a victory against Islamic terrorism and a success for the Biden administration. Zawahiri was an Islamic terrorist, head of al-Qaeda; his death was good news. America's intelligence services showed they still could obtain precise intelligence in hostile countries and strike enemies of the United States wherever they are. Was the elimination of Zawahiri, however, really a victory against Islamic terrorism?
The US military took out Osama bin Laden, founder of al-Qaeda, in 2011 raid in Pakistan, and brought back to the US many documents to analyze the operational capacity of the terrorist organization and its various plans for attacks, many of which, thanks to that information, may have been thwarted.
Zawahiri, however, was killed by a missile launched from a drone; no documents were seized. Islamic terrorist organizations communicate little secret information, if at all, by electronic means, so physical documents are valuable to see what they are up to. The abandonment of Afghanistan a year ago, however, created conditions that make commando raids such as the one on bin Laden arguably impossible. Potentially useful documents remained in Kabul.
Worse, Zawahiri's presence in Kabul further reveals the dire consequences of the US surrender. When the United States surrendered, Kabul again became again a city where terrorist leaders could live and feel safe. The Taliban regime probably did not simply ignore the presence of Zawahiri; it may well have protected him.
In addition, that Zawahiri could live in a house belonging to a top aide to Sirajuddin Haqqani -- the leader of the Haqqani network and acting interior minister of the Taliban regime -- in an elegant district, not far from the U.S. embassy that American diplomats had to leave in a hurry, says quite a lot. The Haqqani network -- an ultra-violent terrorist group that had been independent before joining the Taliban -- enjoys a close relationship and shared ideology with al-Qaeda's leaders. The Haqqani network appears to have a predominant weight in the Taliban government, which today is even closer to al-Qaeda than the Taliban government of 2001.
While in Kabul, Zawahiri was doubtless in contact with other members of both the al-Qaeda and Haqqani networks. The result is that Kabul is once again a relatively safe haven for al-Qaeda.
Afghanistan, in fact, appears ruled by people who have ties to al-Qaeda. What becomes problematic is that the declared goal of Islamic terrorists is to spread Islam, an ambition that unfortunately includes attacking the West. It is therefore impossible to think that the members of al-Qaeda in Kabul have given up these dreams and no longer contemplate mass murder or the West's destruction. It is also impossible to imagine that the Afghan government knew nothing about any of this.
What took place in August 2021 shows that even while the American military was carrying out evacuations at Kabul Airport, the city was already under the control of the Haqqani network and other Islamic terrorists. Thirteen American service members, 11 of them Marines, paid with their lives. The situation since then has only worsened; the US leaving the Taliban billions of dollars' worth of sophisticated weapons and military vehicles also has not helped. Afghanistan today shows all the features of being a terrorist state.
On August 16, 2021, US President Joe Biden, in a seeming attempt to justify his decision to abandon Afghanistan, declared that the United States had come to Afghanistan to "make sure al Qaeda could not use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack us again. We did that", he said. A year later, however, Afghanistan is in the hands of a government close to al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is once again firmly established in Afghanistan and again able to use it as a base from which to organize attacks against the US.
Worse, the elimination of Zawahiri is probably not even a major blow to the terrorist organization he led. Al-Qaeda is not really a structured organization. It operates, rather, as an informal network whose different branches act autonomously. The leaders can give directives and organize major attacks, but the branches of the organization also manage and carry out their own actions.
Al-Qaeda has branches almost everywhere Islam is present. Once powerful in Yemen, al-Qaeda has now weakened there; but in the Islamic Maghreb and in sub-Saharan Africa, al-Qaeda is still extremely active. It plays a major role in destabilizing Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, and southern Algeria.
Al-Shabaab as well has carried out countless attacks in Somalia (here, here and here). Al-Shabaab attacked Kenya in 2020 and Ethiopia in 2022. In addition, Al-Shabaab collects large amounts of money through extortion and plays a major role in funding al-Qaeda's leadership.
Zawahiri had taken over the role of bin Laden, who had served mainly as a guide and a mentor. Zawahiri's legitimacy came from his having been at bin Laden's side from the beginning. He had, however, never shown any particular skill. During his leadership, however, there was no major terrorist attack against the West. He released a few recordings, but often gave no sign of life for months at a time. Analysts sometimes speculated that he was dead.
Other men also at bin Laden's side from the beginning may prove even more harmful than Zawahiri. Before Zawahiri was chosen, for instance, Saif al-Adel, a former Egyptian Special Forces officer, was appointed its provisional "caretaker." His name is often cited as that of the probable next leader of al-Qaeda. Al-Adel played a major role in several attacks, including the bombings of US embassies in Africa in 1998. In 2004, he published online a terrorism manual called "The Base of the Vanguard", detailing how to infiltrate and organize attacks in enemy countries.
Al-Adel has lived for years in Iran, a circumstance that has been presented as an obstacle to the possibility of his succeeding Zawahiri. Affiliates of al-Qaeda seem to have questioned orders coming from him because of his location in Iran. The reality, however, could be far different.
Although tensions exist between the Taliban regime in Kabul and the mullahs' regime in Iran, all available data show that Iran still plays a major role in al-Qaeda. In addition to al-Qaeda's having a new base in Afghanistan, the terrorist group also appears to have had, for years, a significant base in Iran.
In January 2021, then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Iran has become the new home base of al-Qaeda:
"Tehran has allowed al-Qaida to fundraise, to freely communicate with al-Qaida members around the world, and to perform many other functions that were previously directed from Afghanistan or Pakistan... As a result of this assistance, al-Qaida has centralized its leadership inside of Tehran... al-Qaeda today is operating under the hard shell of the Iranian regime's protection".
Many of the sanctions that President Donald J. Trump imposed on Iran considerably hampered the ability of the mullahs to finance the Islamic terrorist groups they had previously supported. By lifting many of these sanctions, the Biden administration has re-empowered the mullahs to finance the Islamic groups they have funded in the recent past. Al-Qaeda is clearly one of them.
After the death of Zawahiri, the Biden administration issued a press release blaming the Taliban for having allowed "Afghan territory to be used by terrorists to threaten the security of other countries". Did members of the Biden administration actually expect anything else from the Taliban and the Haqqani network?
The Biden administration also blamed the Taliban for not respecting the Doha agreement, a peace deal between the US and the Taliban stipulating that the US would withdraw from Afghanistan if the Taliban negotiated a peace agreement with the Afghan government and prevented terrorist groups from gaining a foothold in Afghanistan. Did the Biden administration honestly expect ruthless terrorists to honor the agreement without the US showing at least a little determination to use force if necessary?
Over the past year, the Biden administration has sent hundreds of millions of dollars to Afghanistan, supposedly for humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people. How could one not know, however, that most of the funds were embezzled by the Taliban and used to finance the Taliban regime and its terrorist activities?
The Biden administration almost never talks about Iran financing Islamic terrorism and never mentions that the lifting sanctions on the regime has contributed to financing the very terrorist organizations that the US claims to be fighting.
US Special Representative for Iran Robert Malley continues to negotiate with the Iranian regime. Worse: Malley is not even the one doing the negotiating. Negotiating with Iran on behalf of America is -- Russia! The Americans are not even allowed in the room.
Moreover, all this is taking place while the US is half-heartedly helping Ukraine to defend itself against a ruthless Russian scorched earth onslaught. Malley nonetheless persists in separating the Biden administration's desire to sign a new disastrous nuclear deal from the Iranian regime's terrorist activities.
A year after the Biden administration abandoned Afghanistan to the Taliban and the Haqqani network, Afghanistan is back to being a terrorist state. It hosts and supports al-Qaeda while giving it the opportunity to organize terrorist attacks from Afghan soil.
The US, for its part, not only ran from Afghanistan a year ago, it also ran from its last watchtower in Central-South Asia, and, by not even leaving a small residual force as strongly advised, abandoned countless people be slaughtered and enabled the country to be plunged into economic collapse, chaos and starvation. A recent report indicates that 78,000 Afghans who worked for the American government and applied for special visas were left behind in August 2021. The Biden administration even abandoned Americans. Thousands of Americans and green card holders have been condemned to live under constant threat. In addition, it turns out that 75% of Afghans airlifted from Kabul were not even American citizens, green card holders or Afghan Special Immigrant Visa holders.
Iran, on the other hand, has been significantly strengthened. It supports al-Qaeda and now serenely threatens the United States. On August 1, the mullahs sent a message saying that Iran is building nuclear warheads that could turn New York into "hellish ruins". The US recently arrested an Iranian operative, accused of having plotted to assassinate former National Security Adviser John Bolton and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in addition to a separate plot to kidnap an Iranian-American journalist, Masih Alinejad. All the same, Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi plans to travel to New York for the UN General Assembly this month.
On August 12, in Chautauqua, New York, the Indian-born author Salman Rushdie was the victim of an assassination attempt by a young American Shiite Muslim of Lebanese origin. "The hand of the man who tore the neck of God's enemy must be kissed", gushed Iran's leading newspaper, Kayhan, whose editor-in-chief is appointed by Iran's Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei.
On July 19, 2022, the United Nations released a report saying that "the international context is favorable to Al-Qaida, which intends to be recognized again as the leader of global jihad".
August 15, 2022 saw the first anniversary of the takeover of the presidential palace in Kabul by the Taliban. It was a dismal anniversary. What happened in the past year throughout the country were countless atrocities committed by the Taliban.
Biden's words a year ago -- "We did that." -- fittingly describes all of this.
"It's a year later," US four-star General Jack Keane recalled , "and it's still hard to fathom what we actually did here."
"The president made a huge strategic error, in my judgment, in declaring an unconditional withdrawal with a date certain in Afghanistan, which turned out to be an unconditional surrender. And now we have the Taliban in charge doing what they were doing twenty plus years ago and that is providing sanctuary to al-Qaida.... What a debacle this decision has created. It's an accelerant for our adversaries, as we can see... Russia and Ukraine, China and Taiwan and the mischief that the Iranians are up to in the Middle East.... It's a sad situation."
Dr. Guy Millière, a professor at the University of Paris, is the author of 27 books on France and Europe.