We need to hold the champagne over the death of AQ leader Al Zawahiri

The death of AQ’s leader Ayman Al Zawahiri is a rare piece of good news in the war on terror but we need to temper our celebration: AQ lives on.

Here we go again.

On May 2, 2011 then US President Obama announced to the world that US special forces had raided a housing compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan and killed Al Qaeda (AQ) leader Usama bin Laden (UBL). The architect of 9/11 had met his maker – or rather the business end of a US gun. Americans went ballistic (sorry!), chanting USA! USA! USA! It was indeed a celebratory moment.

And yet AQ went on, albeit under a bland, uninspiring leader, second-in-command Ayman Al Zawahiri. He had the personality of a doorknob. He was no UBL.

Now the good Egyptian doctor is dead, killed in a US airstrike in Kabul, Afghanistan. The current US President, Joe Biden, has had his moment to shine in the war on terror. Time for another celebration?

Not so fast.

Just as the death of UBL did not bring with it the death of AQ neither will the loss of Al Zawahiri. The so-called ‘decapitation’ theory of counter terrorism (CT) – i.e. kill the head and the body dies too – rarely works. Terrorist groups like AQ are not simple top-down organisations which rely critically on who is in charge. We have seen with Islamic State (ISIS) and many others that these terrorists can sustain leadership loss and remain a serious threat. There is always another leader to fill the void and enough members to do that person’s billing. Killing the top dog is like playing whack-a-mole.

In the days after UBL’s death there was hope that the group behind the single, largest terrorist attack in history was finally finished. A decade of the war on terror had done its job and the US – and the world – was now a safer place. However, while some dismissed AQ as ‘yesterday’s’ terrorist menace there are also many who now see a resurgent group (including senior US military officials). The core is still there – in Afghanistan now run by their Taliban terrorist buddies (which should raise very uncomfortable questions for the bearded rulers as to what they knew about UBL’s whereabouts!). Furthermore, AQ franchises, especially in Africa (Al Shabaab (AS), AQ in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Jama’at Nusrat Al Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), and others) are flourishing. AQ central has plans, it appears, to launch attacks worldwide, including in the US.

So yes, let’s high-five the US for taking out Al Zawahiri. A dead terrorist is a good terrorist, as I always say. But let’s not celebrate the ‘demise’ of AQ. In the best Monty Python tradition it ain’t quite dead yet.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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