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The assassination of Al-Zawahiri may not have been a good idea

By Murray Hunter - posted Tuesday, 16 August 2022

The recent assassination of Al-Qaeda’s Ayman Al-Zawahiri is likely to create a number of ramifications. Al-Zawahiri was assassinated by two Hellfire R9-X missiles from an MQ9 Reaper drone, that had flown over or originated in a third country, in the heart of Kabul, which the US evacuated from in August last year. Al-Zawahiri had a US $25 million bounty upon his head and had been the “invisible” leader of Al-Qaeda since 2011.

Such a hit lent credence to US President Biden’s doctrine of over the horizon counterterrorism in Afghanistan. However, the intelligence team that reported Al-Zawahiri’s whereabouts to the White House, and the consequential decision to take him out with a drone strike, is likely to have unintended consequences for the future direction of Al-Qaeda.

The strike occurred around the time of House of Congress Speak Nancy Pelosi’s provocative trip to Taiwan, the president in isolation after positive tests for Covid-19, and just before a critical vote in the Senate for one of Biden’s signature bills to fund his agenda.


The cynical right-wing media are saying the whereabouts of Al-Zawahiri was long known, and the strike was at a convenient time to bolster Biden’s personal popularity. While the wisdom indicates that tracking down such a high value target as Al-Zawahiri would have taken months, if not years of painstaking intelligence gathering.  

Some form of deal is a third option. The Central Bank of Afghanistan received US $40 million as “humanitarian aid” immediately after the assassination. The Pakistani intelligence agency, Inter-Intelligence Services (ISI) was played some role, according to regional reports, particularly if it was the case that the MQ-9 Reaper drone fly over Pakistani territory.

It turns out Al-Zawahiri’s residence was owned by a close advisor to Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of the Haqqani Network, and the current Taliban Interior Minister. The close relationship between the Haqqani Network and ISI strengthens the possibility that there was some US cooperation with ISI.

However, other Afghanistan analysts believe that the assassination had nothing to do with Pakistan’s ISI, as Zawahiri would have been tipped off if ISI knew of the impending attack.

The Taliban Government which formed after the US evacuation of Kabul in August last year, also had elements of Al-Qaeda and groups loyal to the Pakistani ISI within it. With the US out of Afghanistan, the country has returned to much the same situation it was, before the US invasion after 911. US intelligence have been very wary about Afghanistan being used by Al-Qaeda to rebuild their strength for an attack on the US once again.

Although Zawahiri was considered a very uninspiring leader of Al-Qaeda, he had a long history of working with many groups across the Arabian Peninsula and even in Iran. Zawahiri merged his Egyptian Islamic Group (EIJ) with Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda prior to 911. Al-Qaeda had a relationship with the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the Lebanese Hezbollah.


Zawahiri was patient during the reign of Islamic State during the Caliphate period, and kept Al-Qaeda separate. This was consistent with Zawahiri’s belief that any caliphate could not be imposed “top-down”, but had to be built from the grassroots. Only with this strong grassroot base, could Al-Qaeda reinstate attacks on the “infidel West.” Zawahiri saw that Islamic State would be attacked by the West and destroyed.

Zawahiri was content to work on the grassroot fundamentals before taking Al-Qaeda back towards international jihad. The only foreign attack supported by Al-Qaeda was the terrorist attack on a Pensacola Army base within the United States in 2019.

The danger of a post Zawahiri Al-Qaeda is that the organization may drift much closer to Iran. Al-Qaeda and Iran have a long cooperative relationship. This is very much based on the premise that an enemy of my enemy is a friend, where mutual hatred of the “west” is the common bond.

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This article was first published on Murray Hunter.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis. He blogs at Murray Hunter.

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