Al Qaeda emir Ayman Zawahiri was confirmed killed in a U.S. drone strike in Kabul on Sunday in the first air strike conducted in Afghanistan since U.S. forces completely withdrew from the country last year. Zawahiri’s death came less than two weeks after a United Nations report confirmed the Al Qaeda leader to be alive, “communicating freely,” and consulting with the Taliban.
Zawahiri, 71, was one of the most wanted men in the world as the deputy and then successor to Osama bin Laden. Alongside bin Laden, Zawahiri helped plot and execute the 9/11 attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington D.C. The United States placed a long-standing $25 million reward for information or intelligence that led to Zawahiri’s capture.
Zawahiri had been at the helm of Al Qaeda since bin Laden was killed in 2011 in a special operations raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, helping shepherd the next iteration of the terrorist group, while maintaining strong ties to the Taliban.
“Justice has been delivered,” President Joe Biden said on Monday. “This terrorist leader is no more.”
Zawahiri’s death is being hailed as a counterterrorism success, but that narrative masks the fact that Afghanistan has become a safe haven for top Al Qaeda leaders following the withdrawal from the country and the abandonment of the Afghan government.
That the 71-year-old Zawahiri was killed in Kabul – reportedly in a house owned by a top aide to senior Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani – provided irrefutable evidence that Al Qaeda was operating in Afghanistan with the express permission, protection and support of the Taliban.
For further proof, shortly after the news of Zawahiri’s death broke on Monday, the Taliban released a statement “strongly” condemning the drone strike, saying it “violated” international principles and the Doha Agreement.
“On the second day of the first month of the current year 1444 Hijri, an air strike was carried out on a residential house in Sherpur area of Kabul city. The nature of the incident was not revealed at first. The security and intelligence agencies of the Islamic Emirate investigated the incident and found that the attack was carried out by American drones. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan strongly condemns this attack on any pretext and calls it a clear violation of international principles and the Doha Agreement. Such actions are a repetition of the failed experiences of the past 20 years and are against the interests of the United States of America, Afghanistan and the region. Repeating such actions will damage the available opportunities.”– Zabihullah Mujahid, Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan spokesman.
Just weeks before Zawahiri’s demise, the United Nations stated that Al Qaeda’s “leadership reportedly plays an advisory role with the Taliban, and the groups remain close.” Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul’s posh Sherpur neighborhood, where an explosion was reported to have taken place on July 31, would have allowed him to be in close contact with top Taliban leaders.
Previous news of Zawahiri’s demise had been greatly exaggerated. As recently as 2020, Zawahiri was reported to be killed. That has given Al Qaeda plenty of time to consider Zawahiri’s successor.
Who will it be? Last month’s UN report provided insight on Al Qaeda’s line of succession. Saif al Adel, the longtime Al Qaeda leader and veteran, is second behind Zawahiri. Next in line are Abdal-Rahman al-Maghrebi, a top Al Qaeda leader, Yazid Mebrak, the emir of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Ahmed Diriye, the leader of Shabaab, which is Al Qaeda’s branch in East Africa.
Al Adel has long been a top leader in Al Qaeda, and he is known to have sheltered in Iran along with other key terrorist leaders. He is now also believed to be inside Afghanistan.
Maghrebi, a native Moroccan, is Zawahiri’s son-in-law, and has served in a number of senior roles within Al Qaeda. The State Department has described him as the “longtime director” of As Sahab, Al Qaeda’s central media arm and the “head” of the group’s “External Communications Office,” where he “coordinates activities with” Al Qaeda’s “affiliates.” Maghrebi has also been Al Qaeda’s “general manager in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2012,” a key role as top Al Qaeda leaders shelter in the region.
The presence of Mebrak and Diriye in the chain of succession should come as no surprise. Al Qaeda began diversifying its leadership and giving key leadership roles to its branch leaders as the U.S. stepped up its targeted killing of top Al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan beginning in the mid-2000s. For instance, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula emir Nasir al Wuhayshi served as Al Qaeda’s general manager before he was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2015. Nasser bin Ali al Ansi, another key AQAP leader, served as Al Qaeda’s deputy general manager before he was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2015. And Mebrak’s predecessor, Abdelmalek Droukdel, was Al Qaeda’s third in command before he was killed in a French raid in Mali in 2020.
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