Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, was a wanted man for more than 20 years. When a U.S. drone strike killed him over the weekend, he had been living with family members in Afghanistan, back where he and Osama bin Laden had plotted the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
President Joe Biden said Monday that “justice had been delivered” and vowed to track enemies of the United States “no matter how long it takes, no matter where you hide.”
It had taken a long time — and the hiding place is as much of a story as the drone strike itself. U.S. officials said al-Zawahiri had been tracked in Kabul for months: an effort to confirm his identity and to minimize the risk to civilians in any attack. Biden authorized the strike last week, and officials said no others had been killed.
Al-Zawahiri had a long career as a militant. He was jailed in 1981 for his involvement in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and was said to have been further radicalized by his time in Egyptian prisons. He became bin Laden’s chief aide as they created al-Qaeda, and then the organization’s top operational leader, credited with masterminding the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 and then the 9/11 attacks. The killing of bin Laden in 2011 left al-Zawahiri in charge of the global organization.
His death raises several questions — about al-Qaeda’s current structure, the threat it poses to the U.S., the U.S. ability to carry out strikes in Afghanistan a year after its troops left that country and not least the question of what al-Zawahiri’s presence for months in Afghanistan says about pledges by the Taliban to combat terrorism in the country it now rules.
For answers and analysis, Grid turned to Robert Grenier, who was CIA station chief for Pakistan and Afghanistan on Sept. 11, 2001, and served from 2004 to 2006 as the agency’s head of counterterrorism.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: You have had as much experience with this man and this issue as anyone. What was your initial reaction when you heard the news?
Robert Grenier: Well, I guess my initial reaction was, “It’s about time.” This has been a long time coming. I recall that there was a very near miss — I want to say in late 2005, where we thought that we’d gotten him, and indeed he acknowledged subsequently the attempt on his life. I have no idea how many near misses there may have been since then, but this has been a long time in coming.
When I was director of counterterrorism, we were of course very much focused on bin Laden and on Zawahiri, and at the time we used to talk about trying to cut off the head and cut off the hands; bin Laden and Zawahiri were the “head” of the organization. The “hands” were another matter — the operations people. In those days, the head of operations for al-Qaeda carried a very short half-life. There were a series of those individuals who ended up being killed.
Bin Laden and Zawahiri were in hiding — from around November, December of 2001 onward. Zawahiri would put out occasional video or audio statements, but he kept a very low profile. And so they were providing, if you will, a sort of executive-level guidance for the organization. They were really not actively involved in the fight. So there was even some question in my mind, apart from his value as a symbol, and here I’m talking about particularly bin Laden but also Zawahiri to some degree, it wasn’t clear to me what practical effect it would have if we were able to kill either of them.
And I think now even more so — it’s an open question as to how much the death of Zawahiri really affects the battle space.
G: For those who may not remember the name, or may never have known the name, why did Ayman al-Zawahiri matter to al-Qaeda?
RG: His direct involvement with al-Qaeda dated to the 1990s, when Zawahiri, who was the head of the so-called Egyptian Islamic Jihad, merged his organization with bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. And that was a major coup at the time for bin Laden because the Egyptian Islamic Jihad was a serious organization. And Zawahiri became as a result the deputy to bin Laden.
Zawahiri was actively involved in building the organization and later building the network. Al-Qaeda in Iraq, for instance. Zawahiri was the principal contact with the branch in Iraq.
But he was the No. 2 behind bin Laden, and he stepped in as at least the titular head of al-Qaeda after bin Laden met his demise.
G: Do you think the strike is more about vengeance than stopping anything he might have actually been doing?
RG: I hesitate to say that it’s primarily about vengeance — and this may sound disparaging, and I certainly don’t really mean it that way — but it may have to do as much as anything with bureaucratic inertia. By which I mean, this man has been high on the list, and he is the head of what remains a significant terrorist organization, and so when given the opportunity to strike him, you know, it’s almost a bureaucratic necessity to do so.
G: I take it that in your assessment, and perhaps others’ as well, this is not a moment when we as Americans should suddenly feel safer than we did a day ago, right?
RG: I think that the practical operational impact of this strike is limited so, no, I would not feel a great deal safer. I might feel somewhat safer.
As I like to say, in terrorism, as in most aspects of life, nothing succeeds like success, and the opposite is also true. So having lost bin Laden, having lost Zawahiri, that could have some long-term effects on al-Qaeda’s ability to attract people to the cause, their ability to get money that can then be dispensed to other groups. So I wouldn’t say that it has had no effect at all. But I suspect that certainly the short-term effect is marginal.
G: What about al-Qaeda now? It’s been — mercifully — sort of quiet on this front. And to the extent we hear about attacks, we tend to hear more about ISIS. How would you assess the risk or the threat of al-Qaeda generally and to the United States in particular?
RG: Al-Qaeda now has become kind of amorphous. And so many of the sub-organizations that are affiliated with al-Qaeda are essentially independent now. They may take some top-level guidance, but they’re essentially independent entities. What remains of what I guess we might have called core al-Qaeda, it remains in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but from what I understand, they are not all that operationally active. They remain dangerous but mostly because they are a source of funding to others.
I think their greatest value to the extremist cause, and the greatest threat emanating from them, has to do with their ability to collect money and to dispense it to others who are operationally active in a way that al-Qaeda central, if you will, no longer is.
G: Can we talk about what we know about the circumstances surrounding the strike? We’re coming up on a year now since the U.S. withdrawal and the fall of Kabul. There are no U.S. troops and therefore no U.S. assets, or perhaps limited assets on the ground, to do this sort of thing. What does the news tell you about intelligence inside Afghanistan?
RG: I’m sure — I mean, without knowing the details — that our ability to collect real-time intelligence on the ground is not what it was. And the fact that they were able to build up an intelligence picture sufficient to support the strike, and to do it in a way where they were able to avoid civilian casualties, that’s significant. So clearly there is still some capability there. Precisely how that was generated, how much of it was due to human sources on the ground, how much of it was due to overhead surveillance, I simply don’t know.
We’re being told this was a CIA strike. I think it would necessarily have had to be a CIA strike, because it’s not at all clear to me that the U.S. military would have had the authority to carry out such a strike. So even if this was a U.S. military drone, I believe it would have had to have been operating under CIA authorities.
The military can operate only in declared war zones. Afghanistan is no longer that. The CIA, however, has the authority under a presidential finding to make strikes across borders even in countries where we are not at war officially. Recall that when the strike occurred against bin Laden, in Pakistan, that was a U.S. military strike, it was U.S. Special Forces that launched that strike, but they were — the term of art is “chopped” — they were chopped to CIA authority in order to make that strike because we were not at war with Pakistan.
I’m sure the Taliban doesn’t care whether it was U.S. military or CIA — they don’t care, they’re just saying this is a violation of their sovereignty, and so they object to it.
G: A question about Afghanistan. On the one hand, the president said that this is a success in the cause for justice and shows the ability for the U.S. to do this from a distance without troops on the ground; on the other hand, the idea that Zawahiri was there and apparently there for several months, doing whatever he was doing with impunity — what should we take from the fact that he was there and chose to be there presumably for some time?
RG: The Taliban has made it clear all along since the peace deal was negotiated that they would provide asylum — I’m not sure if that was the word that they used, but they would essentially provide political asylum to members of al-Qaeda who were there on their soil and essentially had no place to go. At the same time, they were saying that no one will be allowed to use Afghanistan as a platform to launch terrorist operations against other countries. And I think the Taliban up until the present day had been very consistent about that.
They would probably have considered Zawahiri essentially a guest but would profess that he was not able to do anything operationally from their territory. I think there are a great many people who would be skeptical about that, but that’s their line. And interestingly, this White House seems to suggest that the Taliban is living up to its commitments. Now, there may be some political expediency on the part of the White House in that, because if the Taliban were not living up to its commitments, then presumably the United States would be expected to do something. And that’s something that I’m sure the White House would prefer not to get involved in right now.
Interestingly enough, there is some risk to the U.S. in launching such an overt strike like this in that it could potentially induce the Taliban — to the extent that it is trying to control extremist elements on its soil — to be less careful in doing so in the future. So this is one of the things that I know the White House has to be and is concerned about.
G: There are initial reports suggesting CIA Director Bill Burns, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and others have known about this — or at least about Zawahiri’s presence there for several months. Would there have been any thought given to whether this strike was worth those risks you mention?
RG: I think that if in fact they knew about this for months, then I have no reason to doubt that they were doing what we used to call “working up the target.” Meaning, once you find him, you want to determine what his pattern of activity is, you want to know where he is, who else might be with him, so as to avoid the possibility of collateral casualties.
I suspect that they were able to do in this case what they clearly were not able to do during the evacuations from Kabul last year, when there was that horrible strike right at the Kabul airport that the Islamic State launched, and very shortly after that there was a U.S. drone strike that turned out to be a horrific mistake and killed many civilians. At the time, I, and I suspect a lot of other former intelligence professionals, were shaking our heads and saying, “Well, I guess they didn’t work up the target.” And the reason, I’m sure, was because they didn’t think that they had time. And so it caused them to advance the timetable and perhaps take risks that they normally wouldn’t or shouldn’t have taken.
In this case, I think they were able to work up this target. And if in fact he was taken out without civilian casualties, that’s the way that it should be done.
G: There’s a formulation of Biden’s and others in the administration they call “over the horizon” — namely that the U.S. can accomplish its counterterrorism goals without having folks on the ground. And I think there’s been a lot of skepticism about this. Is this strike a win for proponents of that strategy?
RG: Well, obviously, the White House for various reasons, including political ones, has wanted to stress the fact that we could continue to protect ourselves from elements based in Afghanistan despite the military withdrawal from that country. And it’s hard to argue with success, so clearly they succeeded in doing it in this case. Just how far “over the horizon” this particular drone was, I just don’t know.
But yes, in this sense the strike was a success, and I suspect that the White House will want to tout this as evidence that it can do what it has said that it could do since the withdrawal.
That said, I think we would all have to concede that it’s much harder to do this on a routine basis given our no longer having a platform in the region.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.