This still image from video obtained on October 26, 2012, courtesy of the Site Intelligence Group shows al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri speaking from an undisclosed location, released by al-Qaeda's media arm, as-Sahab. Photo: AFP / Site Intelligence Group

On Tuesday, US President Joe Biden announced that al-Qaeda chief and 9/11 mastermind No 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri had been killed in a drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan. The news took no time to make the headlines and Twitter trends.

As there is currently zero on-ground (military and/or intelligence) US presence in Afghanistan, it is worth looking into how this happened.

Who was Zawahiri?

Ayman al-Zawahiri, 71, had been a senior official of al-Qaeda since 1998. In 2011, he took charge as the chief of al-Qaeda after the death of Osama bin Laden.

He was listed by the US as Most Wanted Terrorist (with a bounty of $25 million for any information leading to his conviction) after the attacks of September 11, 2001, as he along with bin Laden masterminded the Twin Towers attacks and some other terrorist activities.

He had been a target of US intelligence for two decades when he, according to Biden, was finally struck on the balcony of a safe house about a kilometer from embassies and other government offices in the Sherpur neighborhood of Kabul.

Did he die in the drone attack?

The circumstances surrouding the claimed death of the al-Qaeda chief are mysterious – and not for the first time.

In August 2008, CBS News chief foreign-affairs correspondent Lara Logan reported that “Ayman al-Zawahiri – the second most powerful leader in al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden’s No 2 – may be critically wounded and possibly dead.”

Then, in November 2020, he was “killed” for the second time when Arab News reported that “Egyptian national Ayman al-Zawahiri, 69, has died in Afghanistan, likely of natural causes.” Yet Zawahiri appeared in a video message after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, released on September 11, 2021.

So after he supposedly died for the third time, in a drone strike on a safe house in Kabul last Sunday morning, there was confusion among many.

For example, soon after the attack, the former head of the National Directorate of Security in Afghanistan, Rahmatullah Nabil, tweeted that the drone strike on July 31 was likely part of “an American strike on IS-K” (Islamic State – Khorasan Province) at multiple locations in Kabul.

Later on, former Afghan vice-president Amrullah Saleh tweeted that the building had been struck by Pakistan’s air force at the behest of that country’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

It was not clear what actually happened until Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed through a tweet that it was a US drone attack, and it was soon afterward that Biden claimed in an eight-minute video briefing that the attack had been carried out by the US.

But then remarks from a White House official further muddied the waters. In a statement, John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, said that US officials did not have DNA confirmation of Zawahiri’s death, but authorities had collected the evidence of his demise through “visual and other means.”

He added that this “led us to the certainty before that this was the guy, and that led us to the conclusion after, with a high degree of confidence, that he was no more.”

So it can be concluded that confirmation of his death was based on non-DNA evidence in which there was a “high degree of confidence.”

Was he even in Afghanistan?

First, let’s assume that the Taliban had and still have an alliance with al-Qaeda. If so, al-Qaeda would never want to damage the image of its ally, while Afghanistan under the Taliban has been under close observation of the world. Therefore, al-Qaeda would be unlikely to maintain a presence inside Afghanistan, thereby lending credence to suspicions that the Taliban were making it a safe haven for terrorists.

Second, Afghanistan had hosted foreign intelligence agencies for the past two decades and spies from all around the world had been there for long. It was just a year ago that the US and NATO left Afghanistan, and hence it is not hard to believe that some may still be working there secretly. If so, the presence of high-ranked al-Qaeda officials in Afghanistan is quite unlikely.

Indeed, senior Taliban officials including acting interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani have claimed many times that there is zero presence of al-Qaeda, its leaders, or activities in the country.

US ambitions behind the drone attack

Whether the target was achieved or not, there may exist some other major but cryptic objectives of the US behind this attack.

In retaliation for their pullout, the Americans may have wanted:

  • To create grievances between the Taliban and their neighbors and to tell the world that the reason the US over and over again criticized the Taliban for making Afghanistan a safe haven for terrorist groups around the globe was valid.
  • To create disagreement and conflict inside the regime and to bring Taliban officials face-to-face so they would blame one another for exposing Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul.
  • To show the world that the US is capable of conducting “over-the-horizon attacks” whenever and wherever it wants without any presence on the ground, as Biden also emphasized this while he was telling the media about Zawahiri’s death on Tuesday.

Role of Pakistan?

Some observers suggested the drone attack was conducted using Pakistan’s airspace.

While it is true that Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, was in talks with the International Monetary Fund recently, and that he had also talked with the commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM), General Michael Kurilla, just 48 hours before the drone strike, a Pakistani government official later insisted that “the killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri is an internal matter of Afghanistan. No role of any sort [was] played by Pakistan.”

He added that the Americans “have many options in the region. However, it [the drone] didn’t fly from Pakistan or through its airspace.”

The aftermath

Keeping the ground realities aside, this drone strike may further spoil US-Afghanistan relations in the future. Senior US officials such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken have suggested the attack was a violation of the Doha agreement. The Taliban spokesman reckoned the same. So it seems the two parties are in a paradoxical situation.

The Taliban’s image on the international stage may also have been damaged, as the world sees that anyone at any moment can carry out an attack from “over the horizon.” Thus the regime’s quest for international recognition may be jeapordized by a perception that the Taliban are not capable of enforcing necessary security.

And that, not making the world safe from al-Qaeda, may have been Washington’s real motive.

Follow Syed Attaullah Shah on Twitter @SyedAttaullah96.

Syed Attaullah Shah has gained a Bachelor of Science in English from International Islamic University Islamabad. He is a blogger and freelance journalist interested in Pakistani-Afghan affairs and the social issues of Pakistan.