The Killing of al-Qa’ida’s Emir in Kabul — What is Known and What Not

3rd of August 2022

On 31st of July 2022, a U.S. drone strike killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qa’ida, in the centre of the Afghan capital Kabul, an incident that triggered a flurry of media reports and analyses. However, a closer look reveals that reliable information about the incident and its implications is limited.

Photo of Ayman al-Zawahiri on an announcement poster for one of his speeches dated July 2022 (source: https://twitter.com/azelin/status/1554486226031345664/photo/1)

Breaking News

On 31st of July 2022, early in the morning local time, the sound of an explosion was heard in the Afghan capital Kabul. A plume of smoke and dust indicated that a house, located where the affluent central neighbourhoods of Shirpoor and Wazir Akbar Khan meet, was hit. On that day, information about the incident was scarce and it did not seem to be anything major. It did, indeed, rather look like a half-failed attack with a rocket fired from the ground, something that has happened numerous times in Kabul in the past.


However, a day later, on 1st of August 2022, the Taliban published an official communiqué saying that it was a U.S. drone attack. The statement condemned this as a violation of international norms, and the Doha Agreement, an accord signed between the Taliban and the United States of America on 29th of February 2020 that, in essence, traded a U.S. troop withdrawal and U.S. non-interference in Afghanistan against counter-terrorism guarantees of the Taliban.


While the Taliban did not indicate the target of the drone attack, a few hours later, in the evening in Washington D.C., U.S. President Joe Biden did. He asserted that the United States of America had killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, the 71 year old Egyptian jihadi veteran who had been leading al-Qa’ida after the U.S. had killed his predecessor Osama Bin Laden on 2nd of May 2011.

What Exactly Happened?

This was a major and unexpected development, leading to breaking news reports and analyses of pundits around the world. However, while the incident was discussed over and over, information on what exactly happened remains limited.


The most detailed account publicly available was given by an unnamed senior U.S. administration official in a background press call on 1st of August 2022. According to this account, in early 2022, U.S. intelligence identified that Zawahiri’s wife and their children moved to the later targeted house in Kabul. «Zawahiri’s family exercised longstanding terrorist tradecraft that we assessed was designed to prevent anyone from following them to Zawahiri,» the official stated. Surveillance then observed a man believed to be Zawahiri on several occasions for prolonged periods of time on the balcony of the house, but never saw him leaving the building. Over months, U.S. intelligence verified that it was indeed Zawahiri and decided how to target him best. On 31st of July 2022, on 06:18 local time, again being on the balcony, Zawahiri was struck by two Hellfire missiles, according to the unnamed U.S. official. The official also asserted that U.S. intelligence afterwards confirmed that Zawahiri was indeed dead.


Other reports added some details. An editorial by The Somali Wire read that Ayman al-Zawahiri was «sitting on his third-floor balcony (…) reading alone outside, (…) something he did most days.» The Somali Wire offered no sourcing for this and it seems rather questionable that journalists in faraway Somalia would know such details when almost no one in Kabul seemed to be aware that Zawahiri was even there.


The same editorial as well as many other reports stated that the U.S. drone fired Hellfires of the R9X type. This version of the Hellfire was specifically designed to only eliminate the targeted person and prevent collateral damage. Contrary to other rockets, the R9X does not have a warhead that explodes when it hits; shortly before impact, it rather extends six blades of steel, shredding the target by the sheer force of steel hitting at high velocity without affecting bystanders.

Whether the projectiles used in the strike were indeed R9X is unconfirmed though. That the building apparently remained largely intact would speak for this; however, some observers, like Nick Waters, who has researched the use of R9Xs in other instances, remain unconvinced that R9Xs were used in Kabul. He referred to many previous false claims of R9X use and that he has not seen any sign of the distinctive signature left by an R9X on the scarcely available unverified imagery from the site, concluding that «more information [is] needed.»


More information is, however, something that is hard to obtain. Journalists who tried to go to the site of the strike, reported that they had been very aggressively sent away by Taliban forces blocking any access. And the above cited senior U.S. official claimed that «Taliban members took actions after the strike to conceal Zawahiri’s former presence at the location. We have identified a concerted effort to restrict access to the safe house and the surrounding area for hours after the strike.» This amounted to «a broader effort to cover up that [Zawahiri and his family] had been living in the safe house,» the official added.


Given these circumstances and that available claims, including official U.S. claims, rarely mention facts that can practically be verified, it is difficult to gain more clarity. «A lot of people are saying a lot of things of what did or did not happen, but at the moment no one has clear information,» summarised a source who is well-connected to Taliban members and other jihadis.

Is al-Zawahiri Really Dead?

What seems to be clear though is that al-Zawahiri was indeed killed. While al-Qa’ida, at the time of writing of this article, has not officially commented on the U.S. claim of having killed al-Zawahiri in Kabul, several al-Qa’ida members and supporters confirmed that their emir was indeed assassinated. The latter is not only based on online posts of al-Qa’ida members and supporters, but also corroborated by a source with al-Qa’ida contacts.

Jihadist statement acknowledging the death of al-Qa’ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri (obtained by the Swiss Institute for Global Affairs (SIGA) via messaging app)

Given the tragic debacle of the previous U.S. drone strike in Kabul in August 2021, where U.S. officials first claimed to have hit an Islamic State bomber only to later have been forced  to backtrack and acknowledge that they mistakenly targeted civilians, it is also hard to see that U.S. President Joe Biden would announce the killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri, if the United States of America did not had compelling proof for this.


In view of this, denials of the U.S. claim of having assassinated al-Zawahiri in Kabul sound hollow, all the more as they are not providing any indication to the contrary. Such denials continue, however, as WhatsApp messages from several Taliban contacted by the Swiss Institute for Global Affairs (SIGA) as well as a tweet by Abdullah Azzam, the secretary of the first deputy prime minister of the Taliban regime, show. One source further reported that a high-ranking al-Qai’da member in Afghanistan is also denying reports about al-Zawahiri’s demise.

The Taliban Connexion

To what extent and how the Taliban were involved in al-Zawahiri’s apparent presence in Kabul is also murky. According to U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken the Taliban hosted and sheltered al-Zawahiri, whereas he did not further elaborate on this. Apart from the already mentioned claims of a Taliban cover up, the above cited senior U.S. official only said that «senior Haqqani Taliban were aware of [al-Zawahiri’s] presence in Kabul.» Haqqani is a reference to the Haqqani Network, a group founded by late Afghan jihadist Jalaluddin Haqqani which analysts by now see as an integral part of the Taliban, while Haqqani family members themselves questionably deny that there is such a network.


The Taliban themselves were at first tight-lipped. Only shortly before the publication of this text on 4th of August 2022, they finally released an albeit only thin comment. In it, the Taliban stated that they would have had «no information about Ayman al-Zawahiri's arrival and stay in Kabul» and that they had instructed «investigative and intelligence agencies to conduct a comprehensive and serious investigation into the various aspects of the incident.»


Given that the house in which al-Zawahiri was targeted apparently belonged to a member of the Haqqani Network, namely Zainullah Abed, a close confidant of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Taliban’s acting interior minister and leader of the Haqqani Network, and that other Taliban reside in houses in the immediate vicinity, this sounds hollow. Some credible reports even stated that Zainullah Abed as well as a son of Sirajuddin Haqqani were actually present at the house at the time of the strike and killed in it; this however, could not be confirmed and U.S. officials claim that al-Zawahiri was the only casualty.


In view of this, it is hard to imagine that Ayman al-Zawahiri would have been able to live in the house in question without the knowledge and at least tacit approval of the Taliban. And even if the Taliban’s assertion should be true, it would reflect bad upon them, as it would mean that they have no idea what’s going on on their own doorstep — which would raise serious questions about how they should be able to enforce their counter-terrorism pledges across the country.


The more important question is in any event, under what circumstances al-Zawahiri lived in Kabul.


While not specifically relating to al-Zawahiri, during the past several months, a source on the ground has credibly reported specific examples of the Taliban partly restricting other al-Qa’ida members and monitoring their movements and activities in Afghanistan. This, however, has apparently not been done strictly and the Taliban at the same time also provided support and leeway to al-Qa’ida members.


As such, it is possible that the Taliban invited — or even ordered — Ayman al-Zawahiri to live in a house in central Kabul in order to better control his activities. This was also assessed by Douglas London, who prior to his retirement in 2019 served as the CIA’s Counterterrorism Chief for South and Southwest Asia. Speaking to NPR, London stated that «Zawahiri preached isolation, hiding [in secluded places]» and therefore speculated «that it was Taliban pressure that forced him to come to Kabul (…), where [the Taliban] could keep an eye on him, tabs and leverage over [al-Qa’ida].»


Even if accurate, seeing this as indication that the Taliban put al-Zawahiri under house arrest in an attempt to effectively meet their counter-terrorism guarantees would be amiss. Given the timeline, it appears highly likely that al-Zawahiri recorded and disseminated at least some of his latest propaganda videos in the targeted house in Kabul — which would hardly have been possible without at least the acquiescence of the Taliban. Furthermore, the Taliban’s above-described attitude towards other al-Qa’ida members also suggests that they must have known about al-Zawahiri’s presence and that they were at most only partly restricting him.


Given all the above-mentioned uncertainties and unknowns, it is difficult to confidently assess the implications of the killing of al-Zawahiri.


As al-Qa’ida has proven to be able to survive the loss of leaders in the past, al-Zawahiri’s demise will unlikely mean the end of al-Qa’ida though. How well the organisation will manage the transition to a new overall leader remains to be seen and depends highly on who will succeed al-Zawahiri, over which can, at the time of writing, only be speculated.


For the Taliban and Afghanistan, the killing of al-Zawahiri in Kabul likely means tougher times ahead. The international community will now be even more suspicious of the Taliban’s doubtful mantra that they do not let anybody use Afghan soil for trans-national terrorist activities. This, in turn, means that existing sanctions are unlikely to be eased and might even be further increased.


Much will of course depend on how the Taliban will react. At the time of writing, they seemed to largely ignore the issue, with their officials continuing with mundane press conferences and statements about things like revenues from the ministry of mines, the return of Afghan from the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, or even heightened tensions between the United States of America and China. While they then eventually addressed U.S. claims, their assertions of having known nothing and having to further investigate also said little and suggested rather that they will do nothing or have not yet decided how to react.


Indeed, previous reports indicated that Taliban leaders are, as of 3rd of August 2022, convening in the southern province of Kandahar, their unofficial capital, likely to discuss what to do. In view of various indications of a hardening of their regime during the past several months, including a belligerent speech of Taliban emir Haibatullah glorifying unlimited jihad, it is unlikely though that the killing of al-Zawahiri will lead the Taliban to act more decisively against non-Afghan jihadists residing in Afghanistan.


The relationship between such non-Afghan jihadists residing in Afghanistan and the ruling Taliban has apparently changed already. According to the above-mentioned well-connected source, who gave specific examples, most of these jihadists suspect that the Taliban have directly or indirectly compromised al-Zawahiri which led to his death. Hence, there would now be a lot of mistrust towards the Afghan Taliban.


Some Taliban and other jihadists have also openly called for taking revenge against the United States of America or their interests. Much of this is probably propaganda that will not directly translate into action. But some will try to retaliate. They will, however, likely need time to conceive concrete plans, struggling with limited capabilities and counter-terrorism efforts which are, due to expected potential retaliation, heightened.


While most of the above is speculation, the clearest implication of the killing of al-Zawahiri in Kabul is arguably that the United States of America showed that they can, despite their lack of a ground presence in Afghanistan after the disastrous withdrawal from last August, still successfully gather intelligence in Afghanistan. This apparently includes people on site, as a senior U.S. intelligence officer told The Associated Press that the CIA had had a team on the ground in Kabul.

Franz J. Marty

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