The big man is dead. Ayman al-Zawahiri, once a surgeon and from a wealthy Egyptian family, was in the eye of the storm that al-Qaeda unleashed for years even before 9/11, an undoubtedly brilliant attack that led to the group becoming a household name. In what seems like a page out of a science fiction book, the successor to Osama bin Laden was killed while resting on a balcony in a posh area in Kabul that houses most embassies.
News anchors are billing this as US President Joe Biden’s ‘Bin Laden’ moment. The US intelligence community, in particular, certainly deserves kudos. But this may also be Pakistan’s ‘I give up’ moment. That is of far more significance for the region than a domestic poll win for a beleaguered President, or indeed the killing of a 71-year-old terrorist who had become something of an embarrassment to his hosts.
Apparently, Ayman al-Zawahiri was ‘visiting’ his family, which means precise intelligence on the ground. No, just air reconnaissance is not enough. The main input always comes from the ground.
Zawahiri had been reported dead on many an occasion; he had the luck of the devil himself (pun intended) in escaping such strikes.
The pressure on Pakistan has indisputably been piling up over the recent past. And remember, the current US President is one who knows his Pakistan well. The administration would have no qualms at all about twisting Rawalpindi’s arm.
While many would argue that the betrayal of his presence came from the Taliban, who are in dire need of international assistance, that seems unlikely.
Zawahiri Had Been Reported Dead Several Times
Zawahiri had been reported dead on many an occasion; he had the luck of the devil himself (pun intended) in escaping such strikes. Veteran journalist Jason Burke describes how he got out unharmed when a raid killed his young child and wife, and possibly a missile strike that killed others. He survived. His whereabouts were uncertain, and for a while, it was suspected that he was in Karachi.
Following the raid that killed Bin Laden in May 2011, however, he seemed to have thought it prudent to exit Pakistan and was probably living somewhere along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, frequently changing locations to keep ahead of US intelligence. Once the US exited, some disjointed videos began to emerge. But the certainty that he was alive came, oddly, only in a 22 February video this year where he praised a girl from Karnataka, Muskan Khan, for her defiance of a hijab ban in the Indian state. Next was a violent condemnation of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s former spokesperson, Nupur Sharma, where Zawahiri threatened extreme violence.
In other words, once Zawahiri was ‘safe’ – he who had plotted innumerable plots against Americans and who, as Burke observes, was far more anti-American than Bin Laden – he turned against India. His safety was probably tied to that position.
A Taliban Tale
Meanwhile, a UN report of May 2022 observed cautiously that while al-Qaeda was taking shelter in Afghanistan, it was under some Taliban restraint. However, the report also warned that the group was looking to resuscitate itself by launching attacks from outside Afghanistan, thereby not abusing Taliban hospitality.
It is not clear for how long Zawahiri was a resident in that posh house in the heart of Kabul’s diplomatic enclave. While many would argue that the betrayal of his presence came from the Taliban, who are in dire need of international assistance, that seems unlikely.
Despite his age and relative infirmity, Zawahiri was a figure who was well-respected among the mujahideen of old, particularly the Kandahari group. Anyone who was suspected of betrayal for the $25-million reward – and in such circles, the truth does come out, even if only within the top levels – would have a very short future indeed.
What is inconceivable is that the Taliban’s Interior Minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, more Pakistani than Afghan, did not know of Zawahiri’s presence. It is also equally impossible that top Pakistani leaders – particularly Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, former Director-General of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (DG ISI), who was in Kabul hours after it fell to the Taliban – did not know where Zawahiri was. But even the DG ISI would have to persuade the Haqqanis to give them ground intelligence on his movements.
All Roads Lead to Pakistan
The trail would inevitably lead back to Pakistan even under normal circumstances. And in the current situation, it’s even more likely. Consider that Pakistan is now in the most serious economic crisis of decades, with no avenues for raising capital given that it shut out of global bond markets; its only recourse is the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Its ‘iron friend’, China, has its own economic worries and is in no position to bail out a country in danger of complete collapse.
Now, it appears that the army chief had been authorised by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to speak to US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman for an ‘early disbursement’ of funds from the IMF. Federal Finance Minister Miftah Ismail only rated a meeting with the US envoy in Islamabad. The phone call itself occurred somewhere in mid-July and reportedly called for an immediate board-level agreement to clear the disbursement of $1.2 billion, essentially the final step by the financial body, of which the US is the largest shareholder. Why did the army chief need to be involved in what was essentially a financial matter? The Foreign Office declined to comment, though it confirmed the contact.
There’s more. A Bill moving in the US senate requires the Secretary of State, in consultation with the Secretary of Defence and the Director of National Intelligence, to submit a report on “an assessment of support …including by government of Pakistan” for the Taliban between 2001 and 2020. That is dangerous stuff.
The pressure on Pakistan has, therefore, indisputably been piling up over the recent past. And remember, the US President is one who knows his Pakistan.
As Senator, he pushed legislation to tie generous aid to Pakistan to certification by the Secretary of State that “Pakistani security forces are making concerted efforts to prevent al-Qaeda and associated terrorist groups from operating in the territory of Pakistan”, among other conditions, which also included “a reorientation of engagement towards the Pakistani people rather than merely towards the Pakistani government (civilian or military)”. The Pakistani army hated it. This administration would have no qualms at all about twisting Rawalpindi’s arm.
The question is, what next? That Saif-al-Adel would become the next al-Qaeda chief was a given, and it is possible that he was already in charge before Zawahiri was eliminated. Suspected to be a former Egyptian commando, Saif is a man who lives his life in complete secrecy – no videos and no blatant publicity. There are a few images and fewer people who know where he is, though the general belief is that he is in Iran. Saif is a thoroughly disciplined military man – which his boss was not – and it is probable that cadres will cluster around him. So, what is likely is a consolidation of morale, not the reverse. Given his background, Saif is also unlikely to become the pawn of any country, however persuasive. That’s dangerous for Pakistan.
For India, the good news is that Zawahiri is dead and that some part of the Taliban gave him up. What’s dangerous is that the rather lacklustre al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent could revive again. That al-Qaeda cadre will flow into the ‘Daesh’ can’t be discounted. It depends on who has the bigger purse. For India, the Daesh is a far greater threat given its ability to attract cadres even from the deep south. The Taliban hate the Daesh and will do anything to wipe them out. In the dark and malign world of intelligence, therefore, it’s as well to keep Kabul on the right side. Both may have some common interests, after all.
Main Intel Always Comes from the Ground
It was odd to say the least, given that Zawahiri was a terrorist who was even more violently opposed to the US than Bin Laden, and who in the past had little time to waste on India, barring an odd statement on Kashmir. True, the al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent remains active, but it has had little traction in India after its formation was casually announced by Zawahiri in 2014, naming a Pakistani, Asim Umar, as its leader, a skilled orator who had taught in a madrassa in Karachi.
Not that Zawahiri is not a find. His profile from a jihadi website extols him as a leader who descended from the Imams of the al-Azhar mosque in Egypt, and as a leader of al-Jihad, a group accused of the assassination of President Anwar Sadat. Zawahiri was picked up for that offence and Egyptian authorities are unlikely to have treated him with any human rights considerations. Thereafter, he came to treat the mujahideen in a hospital in Peshawar. It was there that Zawahiri met Bin Laden.
Terrorist history is, as always, made in Pakistan. But that’s all in the past.
After Bin Laden’s killing in May 2011, Zawihari is understood to have been moved from Karachi to the Pakistan-Afghan border in Zabol, from where those videos may have triggered his undoing. The clips definitely proved that he was alive, in addition to giving some hints about his broad location. This would have to be then proved by human intelligence. That’s where Pakistan comes in. Apparently, the terrorist leader was ‘visiting’ his family, which means precise intelligence on the ground.
No, just air reconnaissance is not enough. That can only be for verification. The main input always comes from the ground.
(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)