Ayman al-Zawahiri’s assassination spells bad news for the Taliban

The drone killing of the al-Qaeda chief in Kabul may mark the beginning of the end for the group – and leave its hosts in Afghanistan more alone than ever before.

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri South Asia expansion
Al-Qaeda's 71-year-old leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed in an early morning drone strike on July 31 in Kabul, Afghanistan [EPA]

On July 31, in an early morning drone strike, the United States killed al-Qaeda’s 71-year-old leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a Kabul safe house he had reportedly been staying in with his family for several months.

The elimination of al-Zawahiri, a key plotter of the 9/11 attacks, is a significant gain for the US which has been in need of a major victory in its global counterterror operation since its poorly executed withdrawal from Afghanistan. At the same time, it is a massive setback for al-Qaeda which has long been suffering from financial problems, limited command and control, infighting, and the lack of a geographical haven.

The assassination, however, will perhaps be most consequential for the Taliban, as it will force the group’s leaders to reassess their relations with both the US and al-Qaeda, as well as its aspirations for international recognition.

The Taliban between a rock and a hard place

Al-Zawahiri, who assumed the leadership of al-Qaeda in 2011 following the killing of its founder Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, was an uncharismatic but competent leader. He headed al-Qaeda during turbulent times and managed to keep its brand alive despite various US drone strikes eliminating its key leaders and its Iraq branch breaking away to form ISIL (ISIS) in 2014.

Before Sunday’s assassination, al-Qaeda was experiencing a slow but steady revival largely thanks to the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan. The group celebrated the Taliban’s victory as if it was its own. Since the takeover, al-Zawahiri had been releasing propaganda videos much more frequently, demonstrating his growing confidence. A recent United Nations report confirmed that the group enjoys “greater freedom in Afghanistan under the Taliban’s rule” and indicated that some of its members may even be advising the de facto regime.

The killing of al-Zawahiri in a safe house in an upscale Kabul neighbourhood, just 1.5 kilometres (3.1 miles) from the presidential palace, erased any remaining doubts about the continuing partnership between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The assassination provided undeniable proof that, in clear violation of the 2020 Doha agreement – which made the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan contingent on the Taliban’s assurances that Afghanistan would not serve as a haven for al-Qaeda under its rule – the Taliban was not only allied to al-Qaeda, but it was harbouring its chief as well.

The assassination left the Taliban in a difficult position on two fronts.

On the one hand, it likely caused Washington to lose any remaining trust it had in the Taliban regime, and dashed its chances of getting international recognition any time soon. Indeed, after the revelation that the al-Qaeda chief, who helped organise the 9/11 attacks, was allowed to live in Kabul, no country will believe that the Taliban is working to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for terror groups.

On the other hand, the assassination likely damaged the Taliban’s ties with al-Qaeda beyond repair. Until al-Zawahiri’s killing, the relationship between the two groups was based on trust. After 9/11, for example, Taliban founder Mullah Omar opted to face an invasion and lose power rather than hand over Osama bin Laden to the US.

After al-Zawahiri’s killing, al-Qaeda will undoubtedly struggle to trust the Taliban. Some members will see the assassination as a sign of the Taliban’s shifting alliances, while others will view it as a consequence of the group’s growing incompetence. Either way, Taliban leaders will likely struggle to explain what happened and why it happened to their allies in al-Qaeda.

Beyond ruining its relations with both the US and al-Qaeda, the assassination of al-Zawahiri will also damage the Taliban from within. The killing will intensify the intra-Taliban rivalry between the pragmatists who wanted to distance the group from al-Qaeda and other hardline groups like the Haqqani Network, and ideologues who insisted on continuing to harbour and support terror groups.

The end of al-Qaeda?

After Osama bin Laden’s death, al-Zawahiri’s assassination is the second most significant blow to al-Qaeda and the group may not be able to recover from it.

For now, the two candidates most likely to become al-Qaeda’s next leader are al-Zawahiri’s Egyptian deputy Saif al-Adel and his Moroccan-born son-in-law and media operations head Abd al-Rehman al-Maghribi. Both men currently live in Iran, and following the November 2020 killing of al-Qaeda’s number two, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, in Tehran by Israeli forces, they are unlikely to feel safe enough to take on the top job in Iran.

However, after al-Zawahiri’s assassination in Kabul – and the consequent loss of trust between the Taliban and al-Qaeda – they likely will not feel safe leading the organisation from Afghanistan, either.

Due to this lack of a geographical haven in the wider Middle East, the leadership of the group may have to shift to one of the more secure al-Qaeda franchises elsewhere in the world. Currently, the Somali al-Shabab, led by Ahmed Diriye, is the strongest and most resourceful al-Qaeda franchise in the world. But Diriye, a non-Arab, assuming the leadership position may anger members in Syria, Yemen, Pakistan and beyond, paving the way for the network’s disintegration. As a result, despite his uninspiring personality, al-Qaeda may struggle to replace al-Zawahiri.

Furthermore, at the very moment that it lost not only its leader but also its haven in Taliban-led Afghanistan, al-Qaeda is also facing an ISIL resurgence in Africa which threatens its future.

After al-Zawahiri’s demise, all signs indicate that the end of the terror group he led for a decade is also near. It may also inflict a major blow on the Taliban, and force the group to rethink its alliances with hardliners at a time when it is seeking international recognition.

Coupled with ISIL’s overall decline and the elimination of its leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi, in Syria in February, all this underscores that transnational terror networks have passed their prime. Nonetheless, the threat of transnational terrorism is far from over and would require continuous vigilance, monitoring and kinetic interventions to degrade it as and when needed in ungoverned spaces.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.