Biden gets kudos for 9/11 plotter drone strike. Here’s the bad news.

Ayman al-Zawahiri is dead. According to the White House, Al Qaeda’s figurehead, a 9/11 plotter and the successor to Osama bin Laden, he was killed in a spectacularly discreet US drone strike that minimized collateral damage and reportedly resulted in no unnecessary casualties. With this strike, America has reaffirmed its commitment to get out justice however long it takes. For this, President Joe Biden and the military commands must be commended.

Al Qaeda’s figurehead, a 9/11 plotter and the successor to Osama bin Laden, was killed in a spectacularly discreet US drone strike.

This operation puts to rest at least some of the concerns that critics of the president’s decision to pull all American service personnel out of Afghanistan raised at the time. And yet, it also revealed several new concerns about the persistent threat posed by transnational Islamist terrorism.

First, the good news: The strike that neutralized al-Zawahiri demonstrates that America’s so-called “over-the-horizon counterterrorism” capabilities in South Central Asia haven’t been attenuated — at least, not entirely. That’s reassuring, because the loss of America’s Afghan bases and the on-the-ground intelligence necessary to take terrorist actors off the battlefield appeared to have been crippled, perhaps fatally, after the US withdrawal.

On Aug. 26, terrorists believed to be affiliated with the Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, network executed a “complex” suicide attack outside Kabul’s airport, where a mass of fleeing civilians had mobbed and all but overwhelmed the American soldiers attempting to maintain order. Thirteen Americans, two British nationals and over 100 Afghans died in that strike. In response, the US sought to demonstrate its vaunted “over-the-horizon” capabilities, but the demonstration was underwhelming. Officials later admitted that one of those strikes ended up being a “tragic mistake,” resulting in the deaths of an innocent aid worker who had worked with US forces and nine members of his family.

The assassination of Al Qaeda’s chief involved months of planning and operational intelligence, and it served as an effective response to those concerned about America’s ability to secure its interests in the region. The location where al-Zawahiri was hit — an upscale neighborhood in the heart of Kabul, just a short walk from what used to be the US Embassy — represents an ominous portent of the global war on terrorism’s future.

According to The New York Times, al-Zawahiri had returned to Afghanistan this year. He was staying in a safe house protected by senior members of the Haqqani network, a guerrilla group aligned with the Taliban that maintains ties to Pakistan’s intelligence services. Despite the efforts of al-Zawahiri, his family and his associates to disguise their movements, it’s likely that his whereabouts were known to Islamabad. It is a near certainty that his location was known to the Taliban.

We can, therefore, conclude that the Al Qaeda leader was provided some assurances about his safety by the Taliban government. Indeed, his high-profile residence and his decision to relocate to Kabul after the Taliban’s return to power suggest that this terrorist network once again has a partner in command of a state.

While the justice brought down on al-Zawahiri is welcome, it is unlikely to do much to disrupt global Islamist terrorist operations.

While the justice brought down on al-Zawahiri is welcome, it is unlikely to do much to disrupt global Islamist terrorist operations. As The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood observed, the 9/11 plotter was a “black hole of charisma.” His ministerial demeanor of him failed to rouse the passions of would-be jihadists as, for example, the Islamic State’s more provocative propagandists do. Given Al Qaeda’s decentralization, al-Zawahiri’s death is unlikely even to disrupt its operations. What’s more, the Taliban’s support of this and other terrorist organizations represents a declaration of their intention to once more turn Afghanistan into a haven for Islamist radicals.

That may come as little surprise to even casual observers of the Taliban’s conduct, but this contradicts the Biden administration’s rather unrealistic assertions that the group had changed. “The Taliban has committed to prevent terrorist groups from using Afghanistan as a base for external operations that could threaten the United States or our allies, including Al Qaeda and ISIS-K,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken testified before a congressional committee last year.

It was absurd to believe that the Taliban would see America’s national security interests in the region, but that was the stated hope. Since Blinken’s optimistic view of how the Taliban would conduct itself turned out to be flawed, we are left with some more pessimistic conclusions.

As early as September, the deputy director of the CIA, David Cohen, revealed that there were “indications” that Al Qaeda operatives were converging on Afghanistan. Defense Intelligence Agency Director Scott Berrier confirmed, “The current assessment probably conservatively is one to two years for Al Qaeda to build some capability to at least threaten the homeland.”

While Blinken reassured Americans that Al Qaeda’s power projection capabilities were “vastly degraded” from what they were 20 years ago, former CIA Director Leon Panetta warned that the Taliban’s support for the organization would reverse that. Al Qaeda “will plan additional attacks on our country, as well as elsewhere,” he warned. His successor of him at the CIA, acting Director Mike Morell, cautioned, “The reconstruction of Al Qaeda’s homeland attack capability will happen quickly, in less than a year, if the US does not collect the intelligence and take the military action to prevent it .”

The strike on al-Zawahiri is evidence that the Biden administration hasn’t washed its hands of Afghanistan. Indeed, the terrorist mastermind’s presence in Kabul suggests that it couldn’t even if it wanted to. Al Qaeda once again enjoys the support and power of a state, one that now finds itself awash in US military equipment. If those who warned that this organization will reconstitute itself with the aim of executing terrorist attacks inside the West are correct, the American mission in Afghanistan is far from over.

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