Analysis: US gains more than Al Qaeda loses from Ayman al-Zawahiri’s death


The death of Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of Al Qaeda, is the biggest setback that this faction has suffered in a decade. It is also a symbolic victory for President Joe Biden, after the disastrous — and disastrous — withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, which made it possible for the Taliban to return to Kabul.

The 71-year-old Egyptian cleric was, after all, one of the great symbols of the radical project that culminated, in 2001, in the September 11 attacks in the United States. The news comes at a good time for Biden, and it will serve as a charm for his foreign policy, where he hasn’t been shining so much.

Zawahiri’s death, however, does not have the same impact as that of Osama bin Laden, in 2011. Al Qaeda was once the main reference for militants who follow a violent interpretation of Islam, but this position has since been taken by groups such as the Islamic State.

Not that Zawahiri didn’t have his credentials. His life was dedicated to radical movements. As a teenager, he joined the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. In 1979, he founded the Islamic Jihad terrorist group — he was even arrested for planning an attack on then Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that Zawahiri joined Al Qaeda, which had been founded by the Saudi bin Laden. The cleric was the intellectual backbone of the movement, and he was also one of the catalysts for bin Laden’s radicalization.

Zawahiri helped plan a series of bombings against the US. One was the attack on embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, which left 224 dead. The cleric was also involved in the attack on an American ship in Yemen in 2000, in which 17 were killed.

His most impactful crime was the orchestration of the 9/11 attacks, which is why it has become one of the priorities in the fight against terrorism. Nearly 3,000 people died in the hijacking and crash of planes that targeted the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The United States offered a reward of up to $25 million for him.

Despite occupying this prominent position in the American imagination, Zawahiri did not have the same impact, either symbolic or pragmatic, as bin Laden.

The clergyman was known for his long speeches and writings—boring and pedantic—rather than actually inspiring crowds. It was partly because of this lack of charisma that al Qaeda lost its appeal with young terrorists. The leaders of the rival Islamic State took control of the narrative and were able to lure militants into Iraq and Syria, where they came to control part of the territory.

In September 2021, Barak Mendelsohn, one of the leading experts on Al Qaeda, told the Sheet that Zawahiri was unable to recognize that his world had changed. The example at that time was the publication of an 852-page tome on the history of corruption in the Islamic world. The cleric was out of step with the younger generations, whom other terrorist groups knew how to incite with a quick and virtual language marked by explicit violence.

Rival groups also better understood that plans to attack the US could be counterproductive, as they often resulted in debilitating reprisals, such as the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. With that in mind, ISIS focused efforts on fighting the region’s governments. and in establishing a kind of government, something Al Qaeda never did.

Zawahiri’s death is a blow to Al Qaeda’s image, but that organization no longer had as much appeal or the same capacity for action. In a way, the US gains more than the faction loses. Barack Obama bragged about killing bin Laden and Donald Trump bragged about the attack that took Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State. It’s up to Biden to sing this victory, for now.

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