Tuesday, August 16, 2022

The Death of Zawahiri and the End of the War on Terrorism

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To be unclear how much the assassination of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul, announced Monday night by President Joe Biden, will affect the functioning of the terrorist group. But in symbolic terms, Zawahiri’s death at the hands of a US drone is undoubtedly significant: it rings the final note of the war on terror era in US foreign policy.

While Zawahiri’s role in the 9/11 attack is: often exaggerated, he was the last high-profile al-Qaeda figure involved in the case. Before he was the leader of al-Qaeda, he was the group’s top ideologue. help develop its groundbreaking strategy from targeting the “distant enemy”, i.e. the United States, as part of a wider campaign to overthrow US governments in the Middle East. Over the past three administrations, the US has invested massive resources to counter this strategy, including a decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, culminating in a 2011 raid on his compound in Pakistan.

The death of Zawahiri, another decade later, ends the long quest for revenge for the Twin Towers. As US global counter-terrorism operations will continue, the belief that terrorism is the priority for US foreign policy has largely disappeared from official Washington. In fact, it’s been gone for a while.

During the Obama and Trump presidencies, the US foreign policy community was more and more worried with “great power competition” – meaning challenges from Russia and China – and less interested in centering terrorism. Biden’s two most notable foreign policy initiatives, the withdrawal from Afghanistan a year ago and the aggressive response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have solidified US reorientation. On Tuesday morning, Zawahiri’s death was no longer the main story on the New York Times homepage; it had been replaced by tensions with China over President Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.

By the time of his death, Ayman al-Zawahiri was leading a less threatening al-Qaeda that was no longer at the center of global affairs it once held. He lived just long enough to watch the world pass him by.

America has finally moved on from 9/11

In the commentary surrounding the attack on Zawahiri, experts have noted one point time and again: the attack was carried out after the US withdrew from Afghanistan. The strength of the observation is that the United States has managed to find and kill one of its main terrorist targets without major military assets on the ground or a local partner government that could routinely help identify potential targets for drone strikes and special forces raids.

This suggests that one of the main arguments against Afghanistan’s withdrawal — that the US needed a presence on the ground to fight al-Qaeda — was at least partially false. It also suggests that the United States in the future continue intermittent strikes about what it considers to be particularly dangerous terrorist targets abroad. The end of Zawahiri does not mean the end of continued low-level US military operations in places like Afghanistan and Somalia.

But continuing counter-terror operations is not the same as a full-fledged ‘war on terror’. In President George W. Bush’s administration, terrorism became an all-consuming preoccupation—the sun around which all other foreign policy revolved. Jihadism was seen as the central ideological challenge of our time; the war on terror was usually described as a decades-long struggle akin to the Cold War’s struggle against the Soviet Union.

However, as time went on, it became clear that terrorist groups were not nearly as threatening.

As the major invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan turned into swamps, the international coalition launched against ISIS in 2014 proved that more limited military operations could wreak havoc on jihadist groups in their strongholds. Domestically, Western counterterrorism capabilities have become exceptionally strong, with intelligence-gathering and surveillance operations so powerful that carrying out 9/11-style attacks has become prohibitively expensive.

“Spectacular as the 9/11 attacks were, they did not indicate, as many feared, that large and powerful terrorist organizations had rooted in the West and were threatening the very foundations of its social order,” said the leading terrorism analyst. Thomas Hegghammer writes: at Foreign Affairs. “Looking back, [Osama bin Laden’s death in] 2011 marked the end of Al Qaeda’s war against the West. The group lives on as a series of regional militias with local agendas in places like Somalia, but have failed to launch a serious attack on the West for nearly a decade.”

This does not mean that Al-Qaeda as an organization is ready. A recent UN report concluded that the group could plausibly recapture ISIS as the leader of the global jihadist movement, something analysts have been warning about for years.

Rather, both Al-Qaeda and ISIS are less able to carry out and inspire transnational attacks than at their respective peaks (2001 and 2014). This makes them less of a priority for Western policymakers, while a more traditional threat — strategic competition with other nation-states like Russia and China — became a greater concern.

in 2018, then Defense Secretary James Mattis announced that “competition between major powers — not terrorism — is now the primary focus of US national security.” In 2021, Biden described the struggle between democracy and autocratic powers, not terrorists, as “the central challenge of our time.”

The war on terror, as a paradigm, was a clear failure. It led the United States to wage disastrous wars for years, killing tens of thousands of innocent civilians and downplaying bigger strategic challenges (such as China). But despite all those disasters, certain specific policies — including more limited military interventions and increased funding for intelligence operations targeting terrorist groups — succeeded in significantly reducing the threat to the American homeland.

Zawahiri’s death may or may not weaken al-Qaida; its historical record of killing terrorist leaders is decidedly mixed. But in a deeper sense, the kind of threat he once faced is (mostly) gone.


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