President Biden said in an address to the nation Monday that Zawahiri’s death — after he evaded capture for decades — sent a clear message: “No matter how long it takes, no matter where you hide, if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out.”
The strike is the latest in a string of successful U.S. operations against al-Qaeda and Islamic State leaders. Biden said Zawahiri’s death should help ensure Afghanistan can no longer “become a terrorist safe haven” and a “launching pad” for attacks against the United States.
Security experts say the operation demonstrates that the United States is still able to carry out precision strikes in Afghanistan after last year’s withdrawal of troops on the ground. On the other hand, it also highlights the Taliban’s apparent willingness to accommodate al-Qaeda operatives in the region.
Here’s a look at what Zawahiri’s death means for al-Qaeda.
When was al-Qaeda founded?
Al-Qaeda grew out of battlefield bonds forged in the Afghan insurgency against the Soviet Union, which was redirected toward fighting the West.
The group, founded in 1988 by Osama bin Laden, attracted disaffected recruits who opposed American support for Israel and Middle Eastern dictatorships.
When the Taliban took power in Afghanistan in 1996, it gave al-Qaeda the sanctuary that enabled it to run training camps and plot attacks, including 9/11.
What was Ayman al-Zawahiri’s role in al-Qaeda?
Americans knew him as al-Qaeda’s No. 2 leader, the bespectacled, bushy-bearded deputy to bin Laden. In reality, longtime observers say, he provided the ideological direction, while bin Laden was the public face of the terrorist group.
Zawahiri merged his own Egyptian militant group with al-Qaeda in the 1990s. For decades, he served as “the mastermind behind attacks against Americans,” Biden said Monday — including the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, which killed 17 American sailors and wounded dozens more, and the bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed hundreds and injured scores.
“To kill Americans and their allies — civilian and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in every country in which it is possible to do it,” Zawahiri wrote in a 1998 manifesto.
After the group’s forced retreat from its base in Afghanistan in early 2002, it was largely Zawahiri who led al-Qaeda’s resurgence in the lawless tribal region across the border in Pakistan, The Washington Post wrote in an obituary Monday.
What happened to al-Qaeda after bin Laden was killed?
When bin Laden was killed in 2011, his No. 2, Zawahiri, took over as leader.
Although he was the intellectual force behind the terrorist movement, some experts say Zawahiri lacked bin Laden’s charisma. He remained as a figurehead but failed to prevent the splintering of the Islamist movement in Syria and other conflict zones after 2011.
His grip over a sprawling network of affiliates across Africa, Asia and the Middle East was weakened. The Islamic State terrorist group, which grew out of al-Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate, sought to position itself as a more ruthless alternative.
In his later years, Zawahiri largely shied from public view, presiding over al-Qaeda at a time of decline, with most of the group’s founding figures dead or in hiding.
At the time of the U.S. withdrawal last August, analysts described al-Qaeda in Afghanistan as “a skeleton of its former self,” after two decades of conflict and counterterrorism operations. A United Nations report in July estimated there were up to 400 al-Qaeda fighters remaining in Afghanistan.
Some security experts feared an al-Qaeda reboot under the Taliban. At the time of his death, U.S. intelligence indicated that Zawahiri, rather than hiding, was living with his family in downtown Kabul in a high-security residential district where many senior Taliban figures reside.
What will happen to al-Qaeda now?
Analysts say that in the past, al-Qaeda has adjusted to the loss of leaders, with new figures emerging in their place. Today, though, the group is splintered, with branches and affiliates spanning the globe from West Africa to India. The question remains whether those groups will focus on local conflicts or coalesce for more global ambitions.
Charles Lister, a terrorism expert at the Middle East Institute, said al-Qaeda “now faces an acute succession crisis.” Senior leader Saif al-Adel is technically the next in line to take the helm, but he is based in Iran, which has caused affiliates to question his credibility in the past, he wrote Monday. His potential ascension could be the “death knell” for al-Qaeda’s aspirations as a global organization as affiliates deepen their independence from the group, Lister said.
Al-Qaeda hasn’t carried out any major terrorist attacks in the United States or Europe in recent years, following bombings that killed 52 people in London in 2005. Some attackers were inspired by al-Qaeda, such as a Saudi military trainee who killed three American sailors at a U.S. base in Florida in December 2019. A knife-wielding assailant who fatally stabbed a man and a woman in an attack near London Bridge that same year had previously been a member of an al-Qaeda-inspired cell.
Claire Parker and Joby Warrick contributed to this report.