First Impressions on the Execution of Ayman al-Zawahiri

Like Obama with Osama bin Laden, Biden did not portray Zawahiri's death as an end to the War on Terror, but instead as a kind of a kind of proof of concept. But what did it prove, and what is the concept?

The figure of death, naked and emaciated with a cloth on his head, leans in thro door, holding an arrow in one hand.
Detail from Jheronimus Bosch's Death and the Miser, ca. 1490-1500. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Edited by Sam Thielman

IN REIGN OF TERROR: HOW THE 9/11 ERA DESTABILIZED AMERICA AND PRODUCED TRUMP, I contend that President Obama made a substantial mistake by not declaring the War on Terror concluded after U.S. Navy SEALs slew Osama bin Laden in 2011. There was never a better chance to decisively declare 9/11 avenged and the emergency powers granted to the presidency during the construction of the War on Terror due for rollback. That simply was not an approach the Obama administration was interested in, and ending the War on Terror, as I report in the book, was never a serious consideration.

On Saturday in Kabul, a CIA drone strike killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, offering another convincingly symbolic opportunity to dismantle the War on Terror. Zawahiri was bin Laden's successor. By most accounts, he was the driving ideological force within al-Qaeda. Zawahiri was the last substantial figure within al-Qaeda on 9/11—sorry to Saif al-Adel, but you're comparatively obscure—to remain at large. While there's no substitute for the missed bin Laden opportunity, there is a plausible enough argument that killing Zawahiri is a final piece in avenging 9/11.

The Biden administration, like its nearest Democratic predecessor, and like its Republican predecessor after the slaying of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was not interested on Monday in making that argument.

Shortly before President Biden gave brief remarks about the killing, I joined a reporters' background briefing with someone I agreed to identify as a senior administration official. The purpose of these briefings is to present the administration's narrative of the operation. There's value to joining those briefings once you keep in mind that very often, what's said in them gets contradicted by later accounts and revelations. Accordingly, I want to not get too wrapped up in the details presented by the Biden administration. You can read about those specific assertions in all the other press coverage. We will learn in the coming days whether or not the administration is accurately presenting the strike as killing Zawahiri and no one else; and so forth.

That said, it is the administration's contention that Zawahiri relocated to Kabul after the Taliban's victory last year. What a bleak epitaph for a miserable, devastating, 20-year war in which people I care about suffered and died. Losing the war made it easier to kill Ayman al-Zawahiri.

In any event, it makes more sense to zoom out to the context the administration seeks to apply. The message that the administration wished to send, and the political concerns it was attentive to on Monday, were of continuity rather than finality.

IN DESCRIBING the future of what Biden, in a surprise to me, once again called the War on Terror, the administration signalled that this sort of thing is how it views responsible counterterrorism. Both Biden and his senior official were out to relitigate the withdrawal from Afghanistan, an indication that they see their political vulnerability emerging not from abolitionists like me but maximalists in both parties and the Security State. Biden spoke about keeping "a promise" he made after the withdrawal about protecting Americans without "thousands of boots on the ground." This is Biden's vision, pretty consistent with his preferred 2009 alternative to Obama's Afghanistan surge, of an "Over The Horizon" counterterrorism capability: drone strikes from third-country or maybe airstrikes from sea-based staging, with special operations raides as necessary, and an emphasis on remaining inconspicuous. His senior official argued that the Zawahiri slaying "keeps faith" with that post-withdrawal "solemn pledge." It was hard to ignore that Biden famously advised Obama against the bin Laden raid, so surely the Zawahiri drone strike reflects Biden's lessons of that decision.

Accordingly, Biden spoke like someone who isn't done. "My administration will continue to vigilantly monitor and address threats from al Qaeda, no matter where they emanate from," was among the core lines of his brief address, along with bravado about how "the United States continues to demonstrate our resolve and our capacity" for counterterrorism. Factoring out the triumphalism that's inevitable in moments like this one, Biden was making a case for returning to what in REIGN I term the Sustainable War on Terror, a case that we've seen from his administration before. "He promised we would establish a capacity from outside the country [Afghanistan] that would protect against terrorist threats," noted the senior administration official. I can no longer get my questions answered from the White House about what's up with Biden's long-awaited counterterrorism review, but I suspect this is going to be central.

Without the objective of ending the War on Terror, the administration struggled, as have its three predecessors, to explain just what killing people like Zawahiri accomplishes. "It deals a significant blow to al-Qaeda and degrades the group's ability to operate, including [against] the U.S. homeland," said the senior official, using words that 20 years of evidence have demonstrated simply have no meaning. Whatever al-Qaeda is in 2022—relevant is not a word that I think describes the organization—it's weaker than it was on Friday, but parsing what exactly that means is academic. Far more substantial is the reality that the apparatus of the War on Terror, with the exception of the Afghanistan War, the original CIA torture program and Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, remains in place. There are tonight 2500 troops in Iraq; their express mission is the only thing that changes. War on Terror authorities are useful tools of "Great Power Competition."

Biden said he hopes the killing of Zawahiri brings 9/11 relatives and survivors "one more measure of closure." As president of the United States, he could perhaps offer that closure by withdrawing from Iraq, grounding the drones and turning to the congressional work of repealing the Security State's post-9/11 authorities. Yet it was only weeks ago that Biden reaffirmed the basic American bargain of supporting the Muslim world's authoritarians so long as they agree to provide the U.S. with, among other things, the flow of oil. That bolsters Zawahiri's chief innovation within the modern jihadist movement, one he arrived at before bin Laden did, which is the contention that the United States has to be its chief target, since Washington bolsters their local oppressors. He was "continually urging [al-Qaeda commit] attacks on the U.S., reorienting on the U.S. as the main enemy," said the senior administration official, who let the thought drop beyond presenting Zawahiri as an inherent imminent threat.

One more thing Biden said bears mentioning: "The United States did not seek this war against terror.  It came to us." That is a pernicious myth that should not be allowed to persist 20 years later.

It is true that Zawahiri, like bin Laden, like his other colleagues in al-Qaeda's 9/11 era leadership, chose violence and bear inescapable moral responsibility for murdering nearly 3000 of my neighbors here in New York. He used religion as a mechanism to justify violence and beatify the violent—you can find this all through his 2001 book Knights Under The Prophet's Banner. It's also worth noting that Biden's recent abject performance before Mohammed bin Salman, his declaration in Jerusalem that he is a Zionist, his cultivation of Abdul Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, all prove Zawahiri a failure. America is in no substantive, material sense "out" of the Middle East despite his and his coconspirators’ attempts to drive it out with murder, or however useful that argument is in driving the U.S. closer to a war with Iran or facilitating the devastation of Yemen. Facing geopolitical competition from China, currently the U.S. seems desperate to recommit to the region, as cold wars recapitulate themselves. Zawahiri's life yielded, we can say with finality now, nothing beyond reactionary violence.  

But the fact is that the United States indeed chose to respond to 9/11 with (1) a war; (2) across the globe; (3) unlimited by time (4) or by a specific definition of the enemy. All of these choices, and all of the human and constitutional carnage downstream of them, were made and ratified by U.S. policymakers. You can decide, if you are so inclined, that any of these choices are merited. But there was nothing inevitable about any of them. They are choices, particularly now that Zawahiri's killing takes away the final significant driver of 9/11, that the Biden administration continues to make, choices that have exposed the hollowness of Biden's pretensions to a U.S. regime that "protect[s] the innocent, defend[s] liberty, and we keep the light of freedom burning."

For there's one last thing to observe about Ayman Zawahiri. The torture he experienced in Egyptian prisons after he was rounded up for involvement in the 1981 assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was a formative experience. From Lawrence Wright in 2002, recounting a moment in the early 1980s when Zawahiri declared himself:

The prisoners pull off their shoes and raise their robes to expose the marks of torture. Zawahiri talks about the torture that took place in the “dirty Egyptian jails . . . where we suffered the severest inhuman treatment. There they kicked us, they beat us, they whipped us with electric cables, they shocked us with electricity! They shocked us with electricity! And they used the wild dogs! And they used the wild dogs! And they hung us over the edges of the doors”—here he bends over to demonstrate—“with our hands tied at the back! They arrested the wives, the mothers, the fathers, the sisters, and the sons!”

How much more of this has the United States done, and sponsored, to untold numbers of people across the world, in the name of avenging 9/11? How many more Zawahiris have these American choices created? How many are yet to be born?