The Terrible Legacy of Ayman al-Zawahiri | Opinion

On August 2, the United States announced it had killed Ayman al-Zawahiri via an airstrike in Kabul, Afghanistan. The kill was a major symbolic win. Zawahiri was the last remnant of the original leadership of al-Qaeda, serving as Osama bin Laden's right-hand man before assuming leadership of the organization himself. Other than perhaps bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, no figure did more to further the Sunni jihadist cause than Ayman al-Zawahiri. Americans should be celebrating his demise. They should also be planning ahead.

Zawahiri's credentials as a jihadist operative speak for themselves. He dedicated more than 50 years of his life to overthrowing secularism and laying the groundwork for a global Islamic caliphate. When he was just 15, he helped establish Jama'at Jihad (Jihad Group), a small cell determined to overthrow the secular regime in Egypt in the 1970s. He was imprisoned for three years after Anwar Sadat's assassination and underwent torture at the hands of the notoriously brutal Egyptian intelligence services. After his release he made his way to Afghanistan, where he partnered with Osama bin Laden. Using the latter's wealth and charm, Zawahiri helped establish al-Qaeda to wage war against the forces of modernity. Following the 9/11 attacks, he spent 20 years hiding in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan with a $25 million bounty on his head.

After U.S. Navy SEALs killed bin Laden in 2011, Zawahiri took command of al-Qaeda. By almost all accounts he lacked the quiet charisma of his predecessor. Where bin Laden could quietly command the stage, Zawahiri came off as a disgruntled and sclerotic professor in his videos, raging about a litany of grievances while trying to look edgy with a Kalashnikov in sight. But despite his poor skills in front of a camera, Zawahiri kept al-Qaeda relevant during the era of ISIS.

ISIS was as much a challenge for Zawahiri as the United States. Led by a newer, younger generation of jihadists, ISIS used social media to make jihad look cool. It exploited Zawahiri's technological ineptitude and pushed him aside as leader of the jihadist movement.

But the zealous Zawahiri proved more moderate than expected. Always planning on the long game, he resisted the call to immediately establish a jihadist state. He knew that a state which did not enjoy some broad support among its people would fall. As ISIS became the face of jihad, Zawahiri quietly continued to cultivate al-Qaeda affiliates in Central Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, and India. At the same time he also managed to maintain the alliance between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. By the time ISIS's caliphate was being pummeled, Zawahiri had situated al-Qaeda in such a way that the group looked like a trusted and true old warrior, more moderate and effective than the flashy, young tech guys of the Islamic State.

Kabul city street
People walk through a road at the Sherpur area in Kabul on August 2, 2022. - US President Joe Biden announced on August 1 that Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri had been killed by a drone strike in the Afghan capital. Wakil Kohsar / AFP/Getty Images

Al-Qaeda is surely not what it was when it executed the deadliest terrorist attack to date on 9/11. But thanks to Zawahiri's persistence and craftiness, the organization remains relevant today. That he was killed in Kabul suggests that the veteran jihadist was in the process of reconstituting and strengthening the organization, as our intelligence experts predicted a year ago.

Zawahiri's contributions to Sunni jihadism run deeper than his strategic victories. He contributed substantially to jihadist ideology, expanding the work of other thinkers like Abdallah Azzam. Where Azzam, an actual jurist, gave Muslims the legal reasoning they needed to wage jihad without the blessings of their respective political state, Zawahiri gave Muslims the legalist reasoning they needed to have a clean conscience while conducting terrorism against civilians.

The terrorist leader attempted to redefine what it means to be a Muslim by heightening the status of violent jihad in Islamic theology. In Zawahiri's theological worldview, those opposed to jihad are neither Muslims nor friends of Islam. They are infidels simply. The scope of enemies, then, is expanded to include nearly everyone—Jews, Christians, and everyday Muslims alike. While Zawahiri did not always follow his own exhortations (al-Qaeda under his leadership demonstrated surprising prudence), his ideology found its most consistent expression in that young generation of jihadists he grew to admonish.

Zawahiri is dead, but both his organization and his nefarious ideology live on and still inspire jihadists across the globe. Accordingly, the United States should continue to prioritize counterterrorism efforts as it focuses more on great-power competition with China and Russia. As others have argued, the United States should strengthen its intelligence capabilities in countries where jihadists are seeking to build strength through localized conflicts. This is crucial in countries like Afghanistan where efforts to capitalize on the Taliban victory are well underway. But it is also true in Somalia, where the al-Shabaab insurgency continues, and in West Africa where the Islamic State West African Province endures. Continued dedication of resources to counterterrorism efforts will contain these more localized jihadist efforts, preventing another outburst of transnational jihad.

The war on terror as a guiding principle in American grand strategy is surely over. But the need to contain jihadist militancy remains, and will remain, for some time.

Max J. Prowant is a Philos Project research fellow with In Defense of Christians. He is a Ph.D. Candidate in Government at the University of Texas at Austin.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.