Ayman Al Zawahiri's assassination in Kabul this week is a major source of embarrassment for the Taliban, as it undermines the group’s pledge to not provide members of Al Qaeda, and networks like it, with a safe haven. It was one of the terms of the Doha Agreement, originally negotiated by former US president Donald Trump in 2020.
The Taliban's insistence on protecting Al Qaeda was the original reason that the US-led coalition launched its invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 in the wake of the September 11 attacks, which had been planned from Osama bin Laden’s base in Afghanistan. When the Taliban regime refused to cut its ties with the group, it was toppled from power.
The group, back in charge of Afghanistan since August last year, made a commitment two years ago not to co-operate with terror groups again. And it was this promise that persuaded US President Joe Biden to continue the Trump administration-initiated drawdown of American forces from the country.
That Al Zawahiri was discovered living in a safe house controlled by a key figure in the Taliban leadership in the centre of Afghanistan's capital, just a stone’s throw from the compound housing the American and British embassies, completely exposes the fallacy of the Taliban’s pledge.
The 71-year-old Al Zawahiri, regarded as the intellectual force behind Al Qaeda's movement, took over the group after US special forces assassinated Bin Laden in a safe house in Pakistan in 2011.
As Bin Laden’s long-serving deputy, he is said to have been involved in plotting numerous terrorist atrocities against western targets over several years, including the bombing of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, the September 11 attacks and the 2005 London bombings.
This meant Al Zawahiri topped the US Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Most Wanted Terrorist list, and had a $25 million bounty on his head for any information that could be used to kill or capture him. Thus, when the US's Central Investigation Agency discovered his whereabouts in Kabul this year, a complex assassination plan was immediately put into action.
According to briefings by US security officials on the operation, intelligence officers were initially alerted to Al Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul in the spring when they discovered that his wife, daughter and her children had been relocated to a safe house in the city. It then emerged that Al Zawahiri was in the same safe house.
Having acquired definitive evidence concerning his whereabouts, the intelligence agencies informed Mr Biden, who had insisted that, despite the chaos surrounding the US’s final withdrawal last year, it would continue its operations against militant leaders based in Afghanistan.
A small group of key intelligence officials, as well as Vice President Kamala Harris, were brought into the decision-making process as the Biden administration weighed up its options. Throughout May and June, Mr Biden was updated several times on the mounting intelligence that confirmed Al Zawahiri was in hiding at the safe house.
Then, on July 1, the President was briefed in the Situation Room about the planned operation, a briefing in which he closely examined a scale model of the house Al Zawahiri was hiding out in. Mr Biden gave his final approval for the operation on Thursday last week.
Al Zawahiri was on the balcony of his hideout on Sunday when two Hellfire missiles were launched from an unmanned drone, killing him. His family was in another part of the house when the operation was carried out, and no one else was believed to have been killed in the operation. A CIA ground team and aerial reconnaissance conducted after the drone strike confirmed Al Zawahiri’s death.
The operation will certainly provide a boost for Mr Biden, who has faced bitter criticism, both at home and abroad, over his administration’s unimpressive handling of the Kabul withdrawal. Speaking after Al Zawahiri’s death had been confirmed, the beleaguered President said he believed that the killing delivered justice and hopefully “one more measure of closure” to families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks.
“He will never again, never again, allow Afghanistan to become a terrorist safe haven because he is gone and we’re going to make sure that nothing else happens," Mr Biden said. “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.”
At the time of his death, Al Zawahiri was said to be struggling to maintain Al Qaeda’s relevance in a changing Middle East. He had attempted, with limited success, to co-ordinate the wave of uprisings that spread across the Arab world in the spring of 2011, urging hardline Islamists to seize control.
Even so, US officials insist that Al Zawahiri had continued to be a dangerous figure, to the extent that he had continued to “provide strategic direction", including urging attacks on the US and encouraging his followers to view America as the movement’s “primary enemy".
His killing will have left the Taliban red-faced, given that Al Zawahiri was living in a house owned by a top aide to senior regime leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, according to US officials. Washington is also convinced that senior figures in the Afghanistan government were aware of Al Zawahiri’s presence.
If they are prepared to provide sanctuary to one of the world’s most wanted men, it begs the question just how many more Al Qaeda militants are living in safe houses in Kabul’s residential districts.