The killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda, in Kabul, is an important moment in the global campaign against terror. Zawahiri did not have the dangerous charisma of his friend and fellow traveller Osama bin Laden, after whose killing — also by US forces, in a special operation inside Pakistan in 2011 — he took on the leadership of the group. Further, the rise of the ISIS with its own brand of terror combined with its territorial ambitions put al Qaeda in the shade. Most of the big terrorist attacks in Europe have been held to be the work of ISIS or ISIS-inspired modules or individuals. There are no obvious successors after bin Laden’s son Hamza was also taken out by the US. Despite the evident weakening, as the leader of a terrorist group that continues to spread fear from America to Indonesia through its franchisee model, Zawahiri remained a threat for his potential to mobilise cadres. He was the keeper of al Qaeda’s ideology and the co-planner, along with bin Laden, of its most sensational attacks from the 1990s until 2001 and after.
For India, keeping al Qaeda away, under a new leadership, will be the challenge. It is India’s success that the group failed to make any dent in a country with the second largest Muslim population. In one 2014 video, Zawahiri announced the formation of al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). Last year, he sought to make common cause in Kashmir, when he issued a condolence message on the death of Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. And earlier this year, following the hijab row in Karnataka, he put out another message asking Muslims to take up arms against their “oppressors”. This interest in India, however, failed to gain the group any traction here.
Zawahiri was killed on the balcony of his home by Hellfire missiles fired by an unnamed drone operated remotely in Kabul. President Joe Biden may have won a few points at home with this counter-terrorism success. But more than anything else, Zawahiri’s presence in the Afghan capital has exposed the so-called Doha Accord as a failure on all counts. Its terms required the militant extremist group that took over Afghanistan by force less than a year ago not to provide safe haven to al Qaeda or its associates. A UN committee flagged this violation in June this year, and also noted the presence of al Qaeda allies in the Taliban regime as well as the advisory role that Zawahiri was playing. Now the Taliban may find it even harder to win legitimacy from the international community. For the Afghan people, under a medieval regime, with terrorism part of its ecosystem, the suffering seems without end.