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What Ayman Zawahiri’s loss of life tells us about terrorism and US overseas coverage


It’s not clear how a lot the killing of al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul, introduced by President Joe Biden on Monday night time, will have an effect on the terrorist group’s skill to operate. However in symbolic phrases, Zawahiri’s loss of life by the hands of an American drone is undoubtedly vital: It sounds the ultimate be aware of the warfare on terror period in US overseas coverage.

Although Zawahiri’s function within the 9/11 assault is typically overstated, he was the final high-profile al-Qaeda determine concerned that remained at massive. Earlier than he was Al-Qaeda’s chief, he was the group’s high ideologist — serving to develop its pioneering technique of focusing on the “far enemy,” that means the USA, as a part of a broader marketing campaign to overthrow US-aligned governments within the Center East. Over the past three administrations, the US has invested huge sources in countering this technique, together with a decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden culminating in a 2011 raid on his compound in Pakistan.

Zawahiri’s loss of life one other decade later concludes the lengthy quest for revenge for the Twin Towers. Whereas US international counter-terrorism operations will proceed, the idea that terrorism is the precedence for US overseas coverage has largely departed official Washington. In truth, it has been gone for fairly a while.

Through the Obama and Trump presidencies, the US overseas coverage group turned increasingly involved with “nice energy competitors” — that means challenges posed by Russia and China — and fewer involved in centering terrorism. Biden’s two most notable overseas coverage initiatives, the withdrawal from Afghanistan one yr in the past and the aggressive response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, solidified the American reorientation. By Tuesday morning, Zawahiri’s loss of life was now not the highest story on the New York Instances homepage; it had been changed by tensions with China surrounding Home Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s go to to Taiwan.

By the point of his loss of life, Ayman al-Zawahiri led a much less threatening al-Qaeda that now not occupied the central place in international affairs that it as soon as took. He lived simply lengthy sufficient to see the world move him by.

America has lastly moved on from 9/11

Within the commentary surrounding the strike on Zawahiri, specialists have famous one level many times: The assault was executed after the US floor withdrawal from Afghanistan. The drive of the remark is that the USA managed to seek out and kill one in all its high terrorist targets with out main army sources on the bottom or an area companion authorities that might routinely assist it determine potential targets for drone strikes and particular forces raids.

This means one of many main arguments towards the Afghanistan withdrawal — that the US wanted a presence on the bottom to battle al-Qaeda — was a minimum of partially improper. It additionally means that, going ahead, the USA will proceed to have interaction in intermittent strikes on what it sees as notably harmful terrorist targets overseas. The tip of Zawahiri doesn’t mark the top of sustained, low-level US army operations in locations like Afghanistan and Somalia.

However the continuance of counter-terror operations shouldn’t be the identical factor as a full-fledged “warfare on terror.” In President George W. Bush’s administration, terrorism turned an all-consuming preoccupation — the solar round which all different overseas coverage pondering revolved. Jihadism was seen as the central ideological problem of our time; the warfare on terror was generally described as a decades-long battle akin to the Chilly Conflict battle with the Soviet Union.

As time went on, nevertheless, it turned clear that terrorist teams weren’t practically so threatening.

Whereas the large invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan became quagmires, the worldwide coalition towards ISIS launched in 2014 proved that extra restricted army operations may do main injury to jihadist teams of their strongholds. At dwelling, Western counter-terrorism capabilities have develop into exceptionally sturdy, with intelligence gathering and surveillance operations so highly effective that executing 9/11-style assaults has develop into prohibitively tough.

“Spectacular although the 9/11 assaults have been, they didn’t, as many feared, point out that giant and highly effective terrorist organizations had laid down roots within the West and threatened the foundations of its social order,” main terrorism analyst Thomas Hegghammer writes in Overseas Affairs. “Looking back, [Osama bin Laden’s death in] 2011 did mark the top of al Qaeda’s warfare on the West. The group lives on as a set of regional militias with native agendas in locations equivalent to Somalia, but it surely has not efficiently performed a severe assault on the West for nearly a decade.”

This doesn’t imply al-Qaeda is completed as a corporation. A latest UN report concluded that the group might plausibly retake ISIS because the chief of the worldwide jihadist motion, one thing analysts have warned about for years.

Fairly, it’s that each al-Qaeda and ISIS are much less able to conducting and galvanizing transnational assaults than they have been at their respective peaks (2001 and 2014). This makes them much less of a precedence for Western policymakers concurrently a extra conventional menace — strategic competitors with different nation-states like Russia and China — turned an even bigger concern.

In 2018, then-Protection Secretary James Mattis introduced that “nice energy competitors —not terrorism — is now the first focus of US nationwide safety.” In 2021, Biden described the battle between democracy and autocratic powers, not terrorists, as “the central problem of the age.”

The warfare on terror, as a paradigm, was a transparent failure. It led the USA to have interaction in disastrous lengthy wars, kill tens of 1000’s of harmless civilians, and downplay larger strategic challenges (like China) for too a few years. But for all these disasters, sure particular insurance policies — together with extra restricted army interventions and elevated funding for intelligence operations focusing on terrorist teams — did succeed at considerably diminishing the menace to the American homeland.

Zawahiri’s loss of life might or might not weaken al-Qaeda; the historic observe report on killing terrorist leaders is decidedly combined. However in a deeper sense, the form of menace he as soon as stood for is (largely) already gone.



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