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Does the killing of al-Zawahiri make Americans safer? It's complicated

Ayman al-Zawahiri is seen in a still from an August 2006 video shown on Al Jazeera.
AFP via Getty Images
Ayman al-Zawahiri is seen in a still from an August 2006 video shown on Al Jazeera.

The State Department warns that there is a "higher potential for anti-American violence" following the U.S. killing of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul over the weekend.

In a "Worldwide Caution" advisory issued Tuesday, the department noted that al-Zawahiri — an architect of terrorist attacks including 9/11 and the 2000 USS Cole bombing — had urged his followers to attack the U.S., and that supporters of al-Qaida or affiliate organizations may seek to do so in the wake of his death.

"Current information suggests that terrorist organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks against U.S. interests in multiple regions across the globe," it added. "These attacks may employ a wide variety of tactics including suicide operations, assassinations, kidnappings, hijackings, and bombings."

Al-Qaida has not carried out a major attack against a Western target since the 2015 shooting in Paris at the office of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

The State Department is urging U.S. citizens to take certain steps to "maintain a high level of vigilance and practice good situational awareness when traveling abroad." Americans abroad are encouraged to monitor local news, maintain contact with the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate, consult country-specific travel advisories and enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program to receive security and emergency messages.

Meanwhile, Biden administration officials are lauding al-Zawahiri's death as a "hugely significant blow" to al-Qaida and a development that should make Americans feel safer.

"The American people are safer today," John Kirby, the National Security Council's coordinator for strategic communications, told NPR's Morning Edition on Tuesday. "We are obviously glad that this mission was successful, but nobody's taking a knee. Nobody's taking a breather. Nobody's patting anybody on the back. We know we have to stay vigilant against this group."

It's an immediate-term disruption to a long-term threat

Retired senior CIA officer Douglas London made a similar assessment on Wednesday, telling Morning Edition that removing al-Zawahiri "at least provides some immediate and short-term disruption" to the organization. Even so, he added, al-Qaida remains a threat that the U.S. must continue to work to suppress.

He cited reporting from the United Nations and member states, including the U.S., suggesting that al-Qaida is "actually a longer-term threat, perhaps more so than ISIS."

"Al-Qaida has more of a long-term aspiration to strike the United States, in the homeland and externally if possible," London says. "It's at the core of its strategy to get the head of the snake."

What recent history can tell us about retaliation and safety

How likely is potential retaliation? Previous data is scarce, but suggests odds could be low.

Daniel Hepworth, a professor at Kentucky's Murray State University, used data from a global terrorism database to analyze the attacks of al-Qaida and affiliated groups before and up to two months after the targeted killings of four top leaders (including Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki) to see if there was any evidence of retaliation.

There was not, according to findings he published in the Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism in 2014.

"There were no significant changes in the type or target of attacks, no change in the frequency of attacks, and, in one regression model, evidence that the average number of fatalities per attack actually decreased following the targeted killings," he wrote.

Other case studies about the impact that targeted killings have on the behavior — and threat level — of terrorist groups have more mixed results.

Five years after a U.S. raid killed bin Laden, a terrorism expert and senior adviser to the RAND Corporation named Brian Michael Jenkins wrote a commentary about whether the world was any safer. The answer is complicated, but one piece of evidence was clear:

"The jihadists vowed revenge for bin Laden's death, but there have been no centrally directed attacks in the United States since 2011," Jenkins wrote. "In fact, the jihadists weren't gaining many adherents anyway."

He said some studies show that so-called "decapitation" decreases the number of attacks and their success rates. Others suggest that while the frequency of attacks may decrease, their severity does not.

Other case studies indicate that the "elimination of terrorist leaders affected neither the rate of terrorist attacks nor the likelihood of organizational collapse," he wrote. Still, he pointed out that other ripple effects of these attacks include sending leaders deeper underground, hampering their ability to communicate and function and hurting morale.

He concluded that such killings have a negative impact on terrorist organizations, but not a decisive effect.

"Was [al-Qaida] hurt by the demise of its charismatic leader? Certainly," Jenkins wrote. "Is the world a safer place because of it? Probably not."

A diplomat behind the Doha agreement says the Taliban clearly violated it

It's also notable that al-Zawahiri was sheltering in Kabul, not only in a country under Taliban control but specifically in an upscale neighborhood where many Taliban leaders live.

London says the fact that he was living there reveals more about what the Taliban is thinking than about al-Qaida. He notes that al-Zawahiri had long preached isolation and encouraged leaders to hide in underground bunkers, and speculates that Taliban pressure forced him to Kabul where they could "keep an eye on him, to have some leverage over the group."

"Al-Qaida and Taliban cooperation remains very good, but I think the Taliban would rather find some way to keep them from operating such that, should they conduct an attack, it won't be immediately traced to their support of al-Qaida in-country," he explains.

The peace deal that the U.S. and Taliban signed in 2020, known as the Doha Agreement, stipulates that the Taliban end support for U.S.-deemed terrorist organizations. Those include al-Qaida, with which it has deep historical ties (for instance, the Taliban sheltered bin Laden in Afghanistan after 9/11).

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has accused the Taliban of "grossly" violating the agreement — and repeated assurances to the world that they would not harbor extremists — by "hosting and sheltering" al-Zawahiri.

The Taliban, in turn, says that the U.S. violated the agreement by carrying out a precision drone strike in Afghanistan.

"Such actions are a repetition of the failed experiences of the past 20 years and are against the interests of the US, Afghanistan and the region," Taliban chief spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation who helped negotiate the agreement, told NPR's All Things Considered that Blinken is correct, and the Taliban's claim is "obviously wrong."

"The agreement is clear. That's in black and white," he said. "Allowing ... someone who plotted and planned the 9/11 attack [and] carried out other attacks on the United States to stay in Kabul, and issue a statement threatening the security of the United States is ... beyond any doubt a violation of the Doha agreement."

What does that violation mean for the viability of the agreement and U.S.-Taliban relationship going forward? Blinken, for one, has said the U.S. will continue to support the Afghan people with humanitarian assistance and human rights advocacy.

Khalilzad said the U.S. holds the Taliban accountable to the agreement that they made. At the same time, the U.S. wants to maintain the capability to respond to the presence of al-Qaida or any other terrorists that pose a threat. And that response looks different than it did 20 years ago, he added.

"Our ... bipartisan commitment has been that we would not allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven for terrorists who would threaten the United States," he said. "And we demonstrated a few days ago that even though we don't have a large number of troops, or any troops in Afghanistan, we have the capability and the will to execute and deliver on the commitment that we have made."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.