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Leader Elimination "Al Qaeda"* in Afghanistan raised a lot of questions

The United States killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of the al-Qaeda terrorist group, in Afghanistan as revenge for organizing the September 11, 2001 attacks. The organizers of the attacks themselves were killed in the course of counter-terrorist operations. Former leader of Al-Qaeda * Osama bin Laden was eliminated on May 2, 2011 during the special operation “Spear of Neptune” in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. The alleged “mastermind” of the attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was captured in Pakistan and then transferred to the American Guantanamo prison in Cuba. Many of those involved in these attacks are sitting in cells adjacent to him or were killed as a result of American drone strikes in the Afghan-Pakistani border zone.

But what does the elimination of Ayman al-Zawahiri mean?

The liquidation of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri raises many questions. In this report, we will try to answer some of them.

Complex and confusing relationships

The first question concerns the very presence of Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul. Does this mean that the leader of al-Qaeda * returned to the Afghan capital with the consent of the Taliban * a year after the Taliban came to power in connection with the fall of the government of President Ashraf Ghani and the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan?

As you know, the Americans left this country on the basis of the Doha Agreement concluded by the administration of President Donald Trump with the Taliban * and implemented by the administration of the current US President Joe Biden. This agreement provided, among other things, that the Taliban would not allow terrorist organizations to use the territory of Afghanistan to attack other countries. The Taliban* implicitly acknowledged that al-Qaeda* used Afghanistan as a springboard for the September 11, 2001 attacks, and that they will not allow this to happen again.

The Taliban leaders* have talked a lot about learning from the past after returning to power. However, many doubted whether they really admitted their mistakes after losing power for 20 years due to the fact that they allowed terrorist organizations to use the territory of Afghanistan to attack other countries.

Skeptics pointed out that the Taliban promised, for example, to allow girls to attend school, but they never kept their promise. They say that circumstances do not currently allow girls to study in a way that complies with Sharia law. On the other hand, there are those who defend the Taliban and believe they have dealt well with their former adversaries in Kabul since Ashraf Ghani’s defection.

In addition to affordable education for girls and the fate of former adversaries, the international community, led by the United States, was primarily interested in whether Afghanistan would become a springboard for terrorist and extremist groups, as it was during the first Taliban rule *. Therefore, it is not surprising that in recent months they have been trying to find out what relationship the Taliban* and Al-Qaeda* have, if any.

By the way, there were many rumors about the return of Al-Qaeda* leaders to Afghanistan after the Taliban came to power. US officials spoke of the arrival of the Taliban * at the house where al-Zawahiri was killed to remove all traces of his presence, which means that the head of al-Qaeda * was actually under the protection of the leaders of the movement or one of his wings. It should be noted that these relations have existed for many years, especially in the provinces in eastern Afghanistan, where the Haqqani Network * operates. But this does not mean that the leaders of this organization ensured the protection of Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital. However, it is difficult to say for sure due to the lack of evidence to support or refute these conjectures. It is also not known whether Osama bin Laden took permission from former Taliban leader Mullah Omar to carry out the September 11, 2001 attacks, or did it without the consent of his Afghan partners. It is likely that this issue will be raised again in connection with the disclosure of the residence of al-Zawahiri in Kabul. Was he present there with the permission of the leader of the Taliban * Mullah Mavlavi Haybatullah Akhundzade or only one of the wings of this movement?

Who will succeed Ayman al-Zawahiri?

After the elimination of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the question arises of who will take over the leadership of al-Qaeda *. After the assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011, al-Qaeda* quickly chose al-Zawahiri as his successor. At the time, this was a fairly predictable move. The former leader of the Egyptian group “Islamic Jihad” * was the second person in “al-Qaeda” * after Osama bin Laden. In addition, the warm relationship that had been established between them since Khartoum made al-Zawahiri the only likely successor to bin Laden. He led the organization immediately after the assassination of the leader of Al-Qaeda * in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad.

Now the picture looks very different. The top leaders of Al-Qaeda* were eliminated one by one in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Syria. The most prominent figure now is the Egyptian Seif al-Adl, who lived in Iran and may still be there. He has a close relationship with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which took him in after fleeing Afghanistan in connection with the US invasion in 2001.

Although Saif al-Adl seems like the most suitable successor to al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda* may choose another leader who will move to Afghanistan, as al-Zawahiri did. This will allow the organization to avoid choosing a leader who is under the complete control of Iranian intelligence, as in the case of Saif al-Adl.

Whoever the new leader of al-Qaeda* is, the undeniable fact is that it is no longer a centralized organization, as it was under Osama bin Laden. The American War on Terror has forced al-Qaeda* to adapt to a new reality. The organization moved to a decentralized decision-making process by creating independent chapters in Yemen, Syria, the countries of the Islamic Maghreb, the African Sahel and East Africa. For many years, these branches operated independently of the central leadership of al-Qaeda* in the person of al-Zawahiri, who was believed to be in hiding in Pakistan before moving to Afghanistan.

It is likely that al-Qaeda* will continue to maintain a decentralized decision-making process, leaving its branches the right to implement policies that suit their interests, regardless of the identity of the new leader of the organization.

And what about ISIS?

For the past decade, ISIS* has been the main rival of al-Qaeda* and has dealt it more serious blows than the Americans. But ISIS* is in a worse position today than al-Qaeda*. It has lost its so-called “state” in Syria and Iraq and has become just a few cells that carry out sporadic attacks against Iraqi or Kurdish forces east of the Euphrates River in Syria, and against Syrian regime forces west of the Euphrates. ISIS has lost its leaders one by one, starting with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and ending with Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi. Even those branches of ISIS* that have “absorbed” branches of al-Qaeda* in recent years seem to be in a very difficult situation. The Libyan branch of the “Islamic State” *, which created the “Emirate of Sirte”, was completely liquidated, with the exception of some cells that continue to operate deep in the desert in southern Libya. As for the Wilayat Sinai*, it has practically disintegrated and been driven out of its strongholds after the large-scale military operations undertaken by the Egyptian security forces in recent years. The same goes for the ISIS* branch in the African Sahel*, whose leader was eliminated just a few months after the elimination of their main rival Abu Bakr Shehau, the leader of the al-Qaeda branch in the Sahel (formerly Boko Haram*).

Vilayat Khorasan today remains one of the most active branches of the terrorist organization “Islamic State”*. But the main problem is that he is in constant conflict with the new rulers of Afghanistan – the Taliban *, which sheltered Al-Qaeda *, the rival of ISIS *!

* — terrorist organization banned in the Russian Federation

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