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Did Pakistan help US eliminate Ayman Al Zawahiri in Afghanistan?

Al Qaeda head Ayman Al Zawahiri was killed in a drone strike on July 31 in Kabul

Justice has been delivered! The "mastermind" of attacks against Americans for decades is “no more”.  President Joe Biden’s announcement following the killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri on 31 July 2022 in Kabul, is thought provoking.

America living up to its promise of punishing all those responsible for 9/11, coming as it does just preceding US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, despite China’s muscle flexing, once again gives a boost to the ‘American might’.

The technology demonstrated in the attack – using blades to slice the target rather than explosive warheads is indeed impressive. Equally if not more striking is the precise targeting by using a combination of drones and satellites. With ‘zero collateral damage’ and ‘no boots on the ground’, the aftereffects are easier to manage.

‘Delivery of Justice’ by the United States, against terrorists finding safe haven on foreign soil, gains legitimacy. International treaties and compacts presuppose rule-based state actors.  9/11, 26/11 and the likes are non-state actors at play, not bound by any rules. Use of non-state actors as proxy by states, is in the realm of grey zone. This action is bound to reshape geopolitics and calls for a review of international laws.

America keeps its Promise

Last year in August, quite reminiscent of the end of the American War in Vietnam, US forces had made a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan after two decades of ‘Global War on Terror’, leaving the people of Afghanistan at the mercy of a terrorist regime. As the US shrugged off its responsibility, the rest of the World watched in dismay, questioning the credibility of the US as the World’s ‘superpower’. Joe Biden had then assured that the US would not allow the new Taliban-led regime to make Afghanistan a ‘safe-haven’ for terrorists.

Biden was living up to his promise by killing the 71-year-old, Ayman al-Zawahiri, purportedly chief ideologue of al-Qaeda. Ayman al-Zawahiri had taken over the reins of al-Qaeda, after the US eliminated Osama Bin Laden in May 2011, in a residential compound close to Pakistan Military Academy in Abbottabad. Zawahiri was proclaimed to be the mastermind of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and Pentagon in Washington DC. Zawahiri was amongst the 22 "most wanted terrorists" list announced by the US in 2001, with a $25 million reward.

Zawahiri in the Crosshairs

Born in Cairo, on 19 June 1951, Ayman al-Zawahiri came from a strong religious and political lineage.  His grandfather, Rabia al-Zawahiri, was the grand Imam of al-Azhar, the Centre of Sunni Islamic learning in the Middle East, while one of his uncles was the first Secretary-General of the Arab League.

An early entrant into politics, Zawahiri was arrested at the age of 15, while at school, for being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood – Egypt's oldest and largest Islamist organisation. Following his father’s footsteps, a pharmacology professor, Zawahiri went on to graduate in medicine followed by masters from Cairo University but couldn’t last long in the medical profession.  Swayed by radical Islamist groups, he joined the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, seeking to overthrow the Egyptian government, and establish an Islamic state and society.

Following the assassination of Egypt's President Anwar Sadat, on 6 October 1981, by members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad during the annual victory parade in Cairo, several members of the group including Zawahiri were arrested. This was in response to President Anwar Sadat’s role as the architect of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Zawahiri was not found guilty of Sadat's assassination, but was convicted for illegal possession of arms, and had to serve a sentence for three years. Subjected to torture and ill treatment in prison, Zawahiri mutated into a fanatic and violent extremist.

Soon after his release, Zawahiri went to Saudi Arabia, and from there to Pakistan-Afghanistan, which was, by then, deeply embroiled in the US sponsored Pakistan driven ‘Jihad against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan’. He created the Egyptian Islamic Jihad faction for this campaign. After a decade-long fight against the Mujahideen, the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. 

Zawahiri took charge of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad after it re-surfaced in 1993. This Jihad to establish an Islamic state in Egypt, during the mid-1990s led to over 1200 deaths, including that of ministers and officials. Zawahiri journeyed around the world seeking funding and safe haven, reaching Jalalabad in Afghanistan in1997, where Osama Bin Laden was based.

Together they formed the World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders, comprising five groups. On 23 Feb 1998, the five leaders including Shaykh Usamah Bin-Muhammad Bin-Ladin (Osama Bin Laden) of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Amir of the Jihad Group in Egypt, Abu-Yasir Rifa'i Ahmad Taha, Egyptian Islamic Group, Shaykh Mir Hamzah, Secretary of the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Pakistan, and Fazlur Rahman, Amir of the Jihad Movement in Bangladesh, issued the following fatwa to all Muslims:

“The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim. This is in accordance with the words of Almighty Allah, "and fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together," and "fight them until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah."

Six months later on 7 August 1998, nearly simultaneous bombs blew up in front of the American embassies in Nairobi (Kenya), and Dar es Salaam (Tanzania). 223 people died in the blasts and more than 4,500 people were wounded. 12 Americans were amongst those killed. This led to a US retaliation on 20 August 1998 with cruise missiles attacking suspected terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and in Al Shifa, (a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan allegedly producing chemical weapons for bin Laden – denied by the Sudanese government).

In his address, President Biden said that Zawahiri had carved "a trail of murder and violence" against American citizens. That Zawahiri "was deeply involved in the planning of 9/11, one of the most responsible for the attacks that murdered 2,977 people on American soil”. Zawahiri had also masterminded other acts of violence, including the suicide bombing of the USS Cole naval destroyer in Aden in October 2000, which killed 17 US sailors, besides the 1998 attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, in which 223 people had died.

Zawahiri had survived several attempts by the US to target him in the past. In many of these attacks, several Bin Laden and Zawahiri’s aides and operatives were eliminated. In the last decade, new groups like the Islamic State and its variants had become more influential than al-Qaeda. And at 71, Zawahiri held limited operational dominance. The once powerful radicalising leader, with immense ability to rally Muslims around the world, was no more than an idealogue. Definitely a target of high symbolic value, but limited substance and influence.

Zawahiri had reportedly returned to Afghanistan, after the withdrawal of the US and allied forces in August 2021. Eerily similar to Bin Laden’s safe haven in Pakistan, Zawahiri occupied a large compound with high protection in Kabul, in a well-to-do locality called Choorpur. This was typically the area for foreign embassies and diplomats during the times of the pre-Taliban West-backed government.   This area is now home to senior Taliban regime officials.  The house is supposedly own by an aide of Sirajuddin Haqqani , the leader of Pakistan’s blue eyed ‘good terrorist’ group.

Zawahiri was reportedly under the combined surveillance of aerospace and ground-based intelligence resources. He was leading a sedentary life mostly confined to his house compound, stepping out occasionally into a balcony overlooking the compound walls of his house. The regular appearance of Zawahiri in the balcony after the morning prayers was exactly the kind of pattern that intelligence operatives would feast on.

But exploiting this opportunity to eliminate Zawahiri, was laden with high probability of collateral damage, as this was a residential locality. Around the same time last year, the Biden administration had to apologise for the killing of 10 innocent people, including seven children and an aid worker in Kabul, in a drone strike. 

Technology for Precision and Zero Collateral Damage

According to media reports, President Biden authorised the strike on 25 July 2022.  Two hellfire missiles fired from an unmanned combat aerial vehicle struck Ayman al-Zawahiri, in his balcony at 06:18 Afghanistan Time on 31 July 2022.  The elusive al-Qaeda leader was finally eliminated after two decades of hunting.

The Hellfire missile variant used was different, designed to minimise collateral damage. The variant whose nomenclature is reportedly AGM-114R9X utilises six blades to shred the target into pieces, instead of an explosive warhead. The rest of the targeting sequence involving seeking the target, locking, and engaging, remain the same. The kinetic energy from the high-speed rotation of the six blades cause the desired effect. The windows of the target house were blown out, and Zawahiri was killed, there was no other damage.

The Taliban's official response was that a rocket strike had hit an empty house, and there were no casualties. According to other reports, fighters from the Haqqani network evacuated Zawahiri's family from the house and denied any loss. Unlike the post-strike retrieval of Bin Laden's dead body to verify identity, and bury him at sea, the US forces too, made no such attempt this time. The post-strike damage assessment was also done by a combination of aerospace and ground-based intelligence resources.

The technology demonstrated in the attack will at one level accelerate the demand for counter drone systems, and at another level, the debate between ‘boots on ground’ vis-à-vis technological solutions for counter terrorist operations will resurface. In making choices, it would be worthwhile to note that Zawahiri was a more or less static target with an established pattern. Efficacy of remote targeting against agile, dynamic, and shifting targets needs to be considered pragmatically.

Role of Pakistan-Taliban as co-actors

The role of Pakistan’s ISI and other Taliban leaders in facilitating the elimination of Zawahiri will be in the realm of conjecture. However, it is hard to overlook the telephonic conversation between Pakistan’s ‘all-powerful’ Army Chief General Bajwa and Commander of the US Central Command on 30 July 2022, a day before the attack, widely reported in the Pakistan media, reiterating how “Pakistan values its relations with the US and earnestly looks forward to enhance mutually beneficial multidomain relations”.

Historically Pakistan (read ISI and Army) has exploited Afghanistan for its own strategic ends. After the surrender to India with 93,000 POWs and the liberation of Bangladesh, Pakistan Army lost face within the country. And in their obsession to secure strategic depth against India, Pakistan started a nascent Islamic insurgency in Afghanistan, to overthrow Daoud Mohammad Khan – perceived as friendly to India and put in place a friendly regime in Afghanistan. With the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini taking charge of Iran in Feb 1979, the Soviet Union feared that they would lose influence in neighbouring Afghanistan and decided to intervene militarily.

In the world of shadow wars, there was a convergence of interests between the US and Pakistan. The US decided to support the Pakistan sponsored insurgency in Afghanistan, in the belief that they might succeed in “sucking the Soviets into a Vietnamese [like] quagmire”. They did succeed and by February 1989, the Soviet Union had to withdraw from Afghanistan with heavy losses. Emboldened by the success of running the Jihad in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s President Zia ul Haq decided to divert the resources towards Kashmir.

In fact, the world would do well to recall that Pakistan’s Jamiat-ul-Ulema was one of the five groups along with Osama Bin Laden and Zawahiri, that founded the World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders. The first Fatwa issued on 23 Feb 1998 was a ruling, “to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military”.

Engendering crisis in Afghanistan and exploiting it for seemingly mutually beneficial relations with the USA are indeed Pakistan’s hallmark. Failing economy, FATF, IMF’s intransigence, and the losses being suffered by Pakistan Army against Tehrik e Taliban (TTP) – make it a grim situation in Pakistan. And to top it with Imran Khan’s Tehreek- e- Insaaf on the upswing, the situation is desperate for Bajwa, who is due to complete his extended term in a few months. Safe haven for Zawahiri in the house of a close aide of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of Pakistan’s all-time favourite Taliban group cannot be without knowledge of ISI.  The Haqqani group incidentally is also brokering peace talks between the Pakistan Government and TTP. Using a symbolic but operationally defunct 71-year-old terrorist leader as a bargaining chip, and/or allowing the use of Pakistan’s airspace for the drones to operate. is not too much price for Pakistan to pay for US help to come out of the crisis situation.

‘Delivery of Justice’ and Beyond  

Providing safe haven to terrorists is a blatant violation of the Doha accord by the Taliban regime – a fact highlighted by international organisations earlier too. What effect this one-off successful counterterrorist operation has on Taliban or al-Qaeda, remains to be seen, United States and the international community have to collectively follow up on measures to ensure implementation of the Doha Accord. Pakistan’s complicity in organising safe passage and safe havens for its client terrorist groups must be viewed with equal stringency.

One of the branches of al-Qaeda called AQIS (al-Qaeda Indian Subcontinent) was set up in 2014. Announcing its formation, Zawahiri had said that the wing would rescue Muslims from various parts of India from injustice and oppression. Although banned under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), AQIS and its affiliates have been active in radicalising and recruiting educated tech savvy youth in various parts of India.

Zawahiri’s life and many others like him remind us how impressionable youth are being radicalised to carry out such extreme acts of terror and mindless killings in the name of Jihad. Radicalisation countermeasures by the establishment, has to keep pace with both, the politics of radicalisation – state and nonstate, and the technological developments being used by terrorist groups & their sponsors.

President Biden appearing personally on TV to announce the killing of Zawahiri, like President Obama had done for Osama, boosts the image of terrorist leaders, particularly those known to have immense radicalising appeal.  Unwarranted glorification of killing terrorists should not propel youth across the world to aspire for leadership of notional Islamic States through Jihad.

Osama bin Laden was eliminated in 2011. Zawahiri replaced him. It is but a question of time that al-Qaeda and it’s like, will have new leaders, and the organisations will mutate for further acts of terror. 14 years after 26/11 – Mumbai, where 166 precious lives were lost, the perpetrators of the heinous terrorist attack have not been punished. It should be perfectly legitimate for India, to pick out and neutralise the known masterminds of the Mumbai terrorist attack.

Post 9/11, the world has come a long way in international cooperation for counterterrorism. Intelligence sharing and joint exercises have become the norm. It is time for like-minded countries to come together to review international rules for dealing with non-state actors, more specifically state sponsored terrorists.

(The author is Former Member, National Security Advisory Board, Deputy Chief of Army Staff and Kashmir Corps Commander)