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Multiple Gains: The Biden Administration and the Employment of Al-Zawahiri’s Murder

During the early hours of Sunday, the Afghan capital Kabul witnessed a successful American operation that targeted the head of Al-Qaeda organization, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, at his balcony using an American unmanned aerial vehicle. 

The scene is crystal clear image of a new American victory in the course of the war on terrorism on one hand, and an attempt to erase the failure that enveloped the American withdrawal from Afghanistan over the past year on the other, raising questions about the Biden administration’s chances to employ this operation. 

A Successful Strike 

On Monday, President Joe Biden officially announced the death of Al-Qaeda leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, during an American raid carried out in Afghanistan. Moreover, he explained that Al-Zawahiri was killed in a drone strike without using any troops on the ground, adding that the operation was “planned and carried out with high precision”. He praised the operation by viewing it as an implementation of justice and a defense of the American people. Additionally, he praised the United States Intelligence Community, considering that “thanks to their extraordinary perseverance and skill”, the operation was “successful”, confirming that Washington “will not allow Afghanistan to transform into a platform for launching attacks against the United States.” 

President Biden also pointed out that Al-Zawahiri was the second man in the organization during the September 11 terrorist attack, and he was also one of the most responsible for the attacks that killed 2977 people on American soil. He also added that Al-Zawahiri was the mastermind behind several operations that targeted Americans, including the bombing of the American USS Cole destroyer, which resulted in the death of 17 American sailors. Furthermore, he also played a major role in the bombing of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people and injuring more than 4500 others. 

According to Reuters, over the past year, after the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, officials have been monitoring indicators of Al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan. A prestigious American official said that Washington spotted Al-Zawahiri’s family in 2022, in a house in the Afghan capital, which witnessed the withdrawal of US troops and the dominance of the Taliban Movement. After confirming his presence, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan briefed President Biden on the matter. In early July, the plan for the operation was presented to the President in the high-security Situation Room at the White House.

Some analyses indicated that the United States drone that killed Al-Zawahiri in Kabul used Pakistani airspace to complete the mission. These analyses served to link the cooperation during the operation between Washington and Islamabad, and last week’s phone call between General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the Chief of the Army Staff of the Pakistan Army, who is widely known as the most powerful man in the country, and Wendy Sherman, United States Deputy Secretary of State. 

In this context, this accurate attack that targeted the leader of the Al-Qaeda organization was met with a series of praises, both from inside and outside the United States. Former President Barack Obama commended the success of the mission, praising the leadership of President Biden and the United States Intelligence Community, alongside pointing out the possibility of eradicating terrorism without going to war. For his part, Ben Rhodes, a former senior official in the Obama administration, described the operation as “historic”, while also adding that “it shows that Biden did not need to keep troops in Afghanistan to maintain counter-terrorism capacity.”

Furthermore, Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, President of the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, praised the efforts of the Biden administration, saying, “The Biden administration has struck a serious blow to the Al Qaeda network. I commend President Biden, and our brave intelligence officers and military personnel.” He also noted that the withdrawal from Afghanistan did not compromise the United States Intelligence Community’s ability to address terrorist threats. Republican Senator Ted Cruz, a member of the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, praised the operation, describing it as an “important achievement.” Furthermore, Republican attorney Micheal McCaul, member of the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said, “It is a great day for America when the leader of Al-Qaeda is taken out. I commend those security and intelligence professionals who bravely carried out this operation.”

Opportunities to Employ the Operation

In general, the successful military operation targeting Al-Zawahiri in Kabul, how it was conducted through an American drone, and the positive reactions it triggered, may present opportunities for the United States Administration to employ it as follows:

  1. The American Role: Despite some analyses confirming Washington’s diminishing global role, especially when observing the Russian-Ukrainian war from the perspective of it targeting the international order based on rules led by Washington, and that it penetrated Washington’s Western Camp, which it has a responsibility to protect through NATO, a successful military operation in the heart of Kabul, targeting the head of one of the largest terrorist organizations reaffirms Washington’s role in maintaining global security. Elaborating, the United States combats terrorism on behalf of all and to protect the world. Associated with this is also the beautification of Washington’s image by emphasizing the value dimension of American policy that continues to place world security at the forefront of its priorities.
  2. Overriding the Chaotic Withdrawal Image: The image of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan reflected, to a large extent, the failure of US calculations due to the impact of the withdrawal on the transformation of Afghanistan into a more severe and complicated terrorist platform. Moreover, it also reflected the destruction of the model that Washington sought to promote over the years, as well as the consideration of the United States as an unreliable partner. Therefore, the success in completing the operation targeting the head of the Al-Qaeda organization may undermine the outrage that chased the administration following the withdrawal. It may also provide further evidence of the validity of the course pursued by the American administration. This was reflected in the responses that praised the operation, which mostly proved the futility of American forces remaining in Afghanistan.
  3. Enhancing the Image of the American Intelligence: The US intelligence played a huge role in revealing the Russian movements before it waged war on Ukraine on February 24th. Russia addressed this through consecutive assertions of denying and discrediting these American speculations, in an attempt to demonstrate the failure of the United States Intelligence Community. According to Politico, the targeting of Al-Zawahiri via a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Air Force unmanned aerial vehicle strike demonstrates the strength and the ability of the United States Intelligence Community to gather information and reach targets. Additionally, this may indirectly convey messages of reassurance to Washington’s allies and partners who were prompted by the Russian-Ukrainian war to question Washington’s strength.
  4. Containing the US Interior: Given the internal American conditions, there are some indicators that the popularity of the Biden administration is declining, despite its rising trend following the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian war. Elaborating, this is due to many factors, most notably the problem of economic recovery following the successive pandemic waves, the decline in the social and economic level of American citizens amid the negative repercussions of the Russian-Ukrainian war, as well as the political division that’s strongly hitting the American arena. Therefore, completing a successful operation with a direct relation to American streets, which carries considerable fears about terrorist threats on one side, and views Al-Qaeda organization as a major enemy that contributed to the loss of thousands of American lives on the other, may increase the popularity of the Democratic administration, as measured by the killing of former Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden just before the 2012 presidential election, which paved the way for Obama’s re-election. The process could thus be used to rally the American streets towards Democrats, especially since the United States is on the cusp of the midterm elections.

To sum up, Washington’s success in conducting a military operation that led to the death of the leader of the Al-Qaeda organization carries many opportunities that the Biden administration can employ to enhance its image and increase its popularity, yet the issue remains related to the good utilization and the exploitation of the operation by the administration. Moreover, the targeting of Islamic State (IS) leader, Abu Ibrahim Al‑Qurashi, did not contribute to these objectives. However, this can be justified by the fact that IS, unlike Al-Qaeda, has not carried out a terrorist operation inside American territory. This means that the chances to utilize the operation of targeting Al-Zawahiri remain greater due to its direct link with American streets. Adding further, this was reflected in the statement released by Terry Strada, President of the 9/11 United Organization, in which she states, “I’m extremely grateful for the commitment of the intelligence agencies, the dedication of our brave military, and the sacrifices it has made to eliminate such evil from our lives.”

Maha Allam
Researcher at American studies unit

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