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the US had assassinated al-Qaeda commander Ayman al-Zawahiri

US Assassinate Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda’s Number Two

After months of meticulous planning and geographic calculations, President Joe Biden announced that the US had assassinated al-Qaeda commander Ayman al-Zawahiri, also known as Al-Qaeda number 2 in Osama Bin Laden’s leadership, in a drone strike in Afghanistan. Al-Zawahiri, together with the attackers of 9/11, were then labelled as the most wanted after the tragedy back in 2001.

He was assassinated on Sunday during a CIA counterterrorism operation in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. The strike was finally called off at 9:48 p.m. ET (0148 GMT) on July 30 by an unmanned aerial strike launching alleged “hellfire” missiles.

The drone reportedly fired two missiles at Zawahiri as he was on the balcony of a safe house, according to officials. Other members of the family were nearby, but they were unharmed, and they added that Zawahiri was the only victim of the incident. “Now justice has been delivered and this terrorist leader is no more,” Joe Biden added.

A senior administration official told reporters that Zawahiri had been in hiding for years and had not been traced easily due to his remote activities, obviously trying to live his life in the shadows, as the CIA had been eyeing him in the areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The operation to locate and kill him was the result of “careful, patient, and persistent” work by the counter-terrorism and intelligence community.

CIA’s Effort to Trace Zawahiri

The United States government had been cognizant of a network that it believed backed Zawahiri for a number of years, and for the last year, following the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, officials had been on the lookout for signs of Al Qaeda’s presence in that nation.

CIA officials discovered this year that Zawahiri’s family—his wife, his daughter, and her children—had moved to a secure home in Kabul and later traced Zawahiri there.

In early April, intelligence officers began alerting senior government officials after emerging more certain over several months that they had accurately identified Zawahiri inside the Kabul safe house. President Joe Biden was subsequently briefed by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.

The official said that to guarantee that the United States could cogently carry out an operation to kill Zawahiri without impeding the structural integrity of the building and with the least amount of risk to bystanders and Zawahiri’s family, officials probed the construction and condition of the safe house and closely examined its inhabitants. They have also discussed the potential legal repercussions of this strike, particularly given that it will take place in Afghanistan.

The administration also made sure that the severity of the attacks on civilians was kept to a minimum, if not none. Finally, the attack took place on July 30 and killed Zawahiri.

The Taliban Condemns the Drone Strike

According to a statement from the Taliban’s spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, the incident happened on Sunday. The ruling Islamist radicals severely criticized it as a violation of “international values” and the 2020 agreement on the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

However, US officials insisted that the operation was legal nevertheless because the killing of Zawahiri comes nearly a year after US troops completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan on the orders of Mr. Biden, bringing an end to a 20-year military presence there.

The Taliban vowed not to permit al-Qaeda or any other extremist group to operate in regions they control as part of a 2020 peace agreement with the US, but the US believes that the Taliban knew all along about Zawahiri’s presence and they have provided shelter. From there, the violation of the Taliban’s peace agreement with the US has been visibly infringed.

Netizens’ Reaction to the US air strike

Many reactions surfaced after the announcement by Biden on the killing of Zawahiri. People have been debating whether the US should no longer intervene in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US troops because it risks more indiscriminate killings and human rights violations. It seems that other people have also been comparing the US’ proactive efforts to counter terrorism in vulnerable states and yet no actions were taken against Russia; some have remarked that the issue is long overdue and the US has double standards on so-called justice.

Moreover, Canada’s Prime Minister expressed his support for the counterterrorism effort, saying: “The death of Ayman al-Zawahiri is a step toward a safer world. Canada will keep working with our global partners to counter terrorist threats, promote peace and security, and keep people here at home and around the world safe.” Furthermore, we should never underestimate the officers who have gone above and beyond their mission to eliminate the threat not only in America, but globally.

Kristian Rivera, Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow

Maher al-Agal

What the Death of Maher al-Agal Means for the Future of the Islamic State

Maher al-Agal was killed in a U.S. drone strike in northwest Syria on July 12, 2022. Al-Agal was a top leader of the Islamic State, and his absence from the group leaves the Islamic State without another leader to develop the organization’s goals. Having lost leaders like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Abu Ibrahim al Hashimi al Qurashi in the past, the Islamic State has recovered relative to the point of continuing attacks. This then poses the question, how will the death of Maher al-Agal impact the Islamic State?

Background of Maher al-Agal and his Rise to Power

Little is known about the life of Maher al-Agal previous to his involvement with the Islamic State. He was formerly a prominent member of the Islamic State in Raqqa when the organization held control of that territory.  In 2020, al-Agal moved to become a member of Turkish-backed factions and lived in the city of Afrin. Al-Agal eventually became a commander in one of those Turkish backed factions titled Jaysh Al-Sharqiyyah, the final position he held for the remainder of his life. According to the U.S. military, al-Agal aggressively worked to develop the Islamic State’s networks internationally.  By the end of his life, al-Agal was considered to be one of the top five leaders of the organization.

The Airstrike that Killed Maher al-Agal

The drone strike that killed al-Agal occurred in northwest Syria, where he was confirmed to be located.  A close associate of  al-Agal’s was seriously injured in the blast as confirmed by the U.S. government.  The target was confirmed to be al-Agal whilst he and his associate were riding a motorcycle in the town of Khaltan. An unconfirmed report by the U.S. military states that the associate eventually died of his injuries.  It has still yet to be confirmed if any civilians were injured or killed in the attack, but sources thus far have said there have not been any civilian casualties.

How Death and Capture of Past IS Leaders Have Impacted the Organization

Prominent leaders of the Islamic State have been killed in different attacks by the U.S., much like that of Maher al-Agal. The former leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed in October of 2019. Baghdadi detonated his suicide vest, ultimately killing himself and three of his children during a pursuit inside a tunnel involving U.S. military canines.  Baghdadi first gained attention in 2014 when he officially declared the Islamic State a caliphate, and it spread throughout Iraq and Syria. Despite the death of Baghdadi, the Islamic State remained and continues to remain a prominent threat throughout the world.

The death of the former leader of the Islamic State, who took leadership after the death of Baghdadi, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, died February 2, 2022. Al-Qurashi had a similar death to Baghdadi; while being chased by U.S. forces, he detonated a suicide vest, resulting in the blast that killed some of his family members and an ISIS deputy.  His death seemed to slow the group in general; however, the organization still held hundreds to thousands of followers by the time Abu Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi was chosen as successor.

Abu Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi only remained the leader of the Islamic State for about three months before his capture by Turkish forces in late May.  Turkish officials claim that during the raid to capture him, their forces did not have to shoot a single bullet. The U.S., still has yet to confirm whether or not the man is, in fact, al-Qurashi.  However, Turkish officials allege that it is him without a doubt. The alleged capture of al-Qurashi still did not stop the Islamic State as the group still remains active throughout the world.

Outlook

Overall, while governments welcome the death of Maher al-Agal throughout the world, it is still unclear how much of an impact this will have on the Islamic State as a whole. The group has suffered thousands of casualties and multiple deaths of its top leaders, yet they continue to push their ideology and grow, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. While this attack will impact the group and could lead to destabilization of the Islamic State as a whole, it is unlikely that the group will continue without a successor for long. It will take a united effort from the international community to help mitigate this crisis. While the death of leaders like al-Agal is a step in the right direction, ultimately, poverty reduction, stabilization of conflict zones, and repatriation and reintegration of foreign terrorist fighters and their families are just some ways to slow the growth of the Islamic State.

 

Claire Spethman, Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow

Katibat Macina

Katibat Macina: A Growing Threat in Mali

According to a statement by the Malian government, heightened attention is on Katibat Macina, an al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist organization, for its massacre of 132 civilians in central Mali.  Mali has not seen a death toll that high from an isolated incident since 2012, leaving the country in a complete state of grief since the attack in late June. Katibat Macina continues to grow throughout Mali and is becoming an increasing security threat in the region.

The Mali War and Current State of the Conflict

In 2012, the Mali War began, and its roots are attributed to the fourth uprising by the Tuareg separatist group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. This uprising led an Islamist takeover of all northern cities of Mali. It included an improvised military coup against the standing Malian military. This conflict has led to the deaths of over 25,000 people and caused the displacement of over four million. With the severity of this conflict and requests from the Malian president, France, and the UN Peacekeepers became involved in hopes of mitigation. However, French troops are withdrawing due to disagreements between leaders on best practices. This leaves the Malian government with UN Peacekeepers and their military committee that has yet to be able to counter the continued insurgency.

In the past year, the Malian government has heavily relied on Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group to support their fight against jihadists. Efforts to mitigate the growing jihadism in Mali have yet to be stopped and have spread throughout the Sahel, leaving the Malian military without significant progress towards peace.

Background of Katibat Macina

Katibat Macina first found its roots in 2015 from its founder and current leader, Amadou Kouffa, a former member of Ansar al-Din, another terrorist organization in Mali.  Katibat Macina first gained attention for their attack on the Byblos Hotel in Mopti. By 2016, the group’s operations focused more seriously on the Niger Delta, an area known for its rich agriculture, which only exacerbated the number of displaced persons throughout Mali.

After much public rejection for their harsh interpretations of Shar’ia, Katibat Macina was forced to hold a softer approach when aiming to gain more recruits. The group was able to grow and eventually shifted its main focus to attacking UN operations and personnel throughout Mali.

Massacre of 132 Civilians

From June 18, 2022, to June 19, 2022, Katibat Macina attacked the villages of Diallassagou, Diamweli, and Deguessagou in the Bandiagara area of Mali. Katibat Macina arrived armed on motorcycles and executed mostly men throughout the villages and set fire to many of the homes, vehicles, and barns forcing survivors to flee to Bankass.

Local sources have attributed this attack to the people of these villages for their cooperation with the Malian government and Russian mercenaries on counterterrorism efforts in the area. Katibat Macina attacked two additional cities; however, the fighters were ousted by traditional Dozo hunters or armed Dogon militiamen before the attack reached civilians. The Bandiagara area has often experienced jihadist violence, but nothing as severe as this recent massacre of innocent civilians. Some sources have claimed that the actual death count is lower than what has been reported in an effort by Dogon militiamen to gain more weapons; the Malian government has rejected these statements.

Current Mitigation Efforts & Outlook

Efforts to counter Katibat Macina have included ground combat, interviews of victims, and airstrikes. The Malian government has sent airstrikes in an effort to counter Kabitiat Macina in the vicinity of Bankass and Segue, as well as in Djenne and Tenenkou, where some of its members were located. Both the Malian government and Russian mercenaries have ramped up their counterterrorism efforts in these areas following the massacre.

The growth of jihadism in Mali and its presence throughout the entire Sahel has continued to grow without fail. The UN continues its peacekeeping efforts throughout Mali with its operation, UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali. However, this UN mission is often referred to as the most dangerous mission for peacekeepers due to high attacks targeting UN officials.

Following the withdrawal of French troops from Mali, the Malian government is struggling to properly counter these terrorist groups on their own, even coupled with the help of the UN. The Malian military needs proper funding and support from the international community o mitigate this growing security threat and prevent further massacres.

 

Claire Spethman, Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow

 

Drone

A U.S. Drone Strike Kills an al-Qaeda Linked Commander in Syria

On June 27, another drone strike was successfully completed against the leader of an al-Qaeda affiliate group in northern Syria, according to the Syrian Civil Defense, a humanitarian organization. The attack occurred just before midnight when two rockets were fired towards the target.

As claimed by Syrian opposition activists and the U.S. military, the man killed, identified as Abu Hamzah al Yemeni, was a top member of an al-Qaeda-affiliated group.  The drone strike was conducted by a U.S.-led coalition in the northwest province of Idlib.

The U.S. Central Command stated that the attack targeted al Yemeni, a “top leader” of Hurras al-Din, an organization affiliated with al-Qaeda, as he was riding a motorcycle by himself at midnight. Furthermore, the body was then transported to the forensic department in Idlib. According to verified reports, there were no civilian casualties. Additionally, the U.S. Central Command stated that “the removal of this senior leader will disrupt al-Qaeda’s ability to carry out attacks against U.S. citizens, our partners and innocent civilians around the world.”

Overview of the Group Hurras al-din

On February 27, 2018, seven ardent Syrian rebel organizations joined together, actualizing their group which is now known as Hurras al-Din (HaD). In the months that followed the group’s founding, ten additional minor rebel organizations with a history of doctrinal and managerial ties to al-Qaeda joined. Reports estimate that at least 50% of the 700 – 2,500 members of the group are foreigners.

HaD is outspokenly committed to al-Qaeda. Additionally, al-Qaeda veterans from other countries make up the vast majority of HaD’s leadership. These significant ties to al-Qaeda makes HaD part of the watchlists of intelligence agencies, the U.S. government, and think tanks. The leadership of HaD is divided along two differing currents: one that adheres to the ideas of Libyan cleric Jamal Ibrahim Ashityawee al-Musratti and the other that adheres to those of al-Qaeda scholar Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. The “defining authority” for both currents is the al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The Public’s Opinion of the U.S. Drone Strikes

There were mixed comments online as to the recent attack in Syria. Some members of the online community have reiterated that the U.S. is dominating weak countries and committing crimes against humanity due to their Global War on Terror. However, CENTCOM said in its statement that violent extremist organizations, including al-Qaeda-aligned organizations such as Hurras al-Din “continue to present a threat to America and our allies.” It added that al-Qaeda-aligned militants use Syria as a safe haven to coordinate with their external affiliates and plan operations outside of Syria.

 

Kristian N. Rivera, Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow

Women's Rights

Afghan Elders’ Meeting Ends with No Mention of Women’s Rights

Last week, a three-day gathering of 3,000 male ethnic and Afghan religious leaders ended.  Led by the Taliban’s rarely seen leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, the meeting was aimed to discuss the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan and form greater unity among leadership. After many reneged promises on women’s rights in the previous months, this meeting was another opportunity to declare the Taliban’s stance.  However, it ended with no mention of the future of women in Afghanistan.  The Taliban’s silence solidifies their position on women’s rights, a stance that will continue to isolate them from the world. This meeting indicates that, in the next few months, the humanitarian and economic crisis in Afghanistan will only deepen.

Limited Earthquake Aid Shows the World’s Staunch Commitment to Human Rights

Last week, one of the most devastating earthquakes hit Afghanistan, killing more than one thousand individuals and injuring thousands more.  In the wake of such an event, usually millions of dollars of long-term aid would flood the nation to assist in rebuilding efforts and ease the effects of the disaster.  However, human rights abuses by the Taliban have prevented money for long-term development from entering Afghanistan. Further, billions of Afghan reserves remain frozen overseas until the Taliban show a commitment to women’s rights.  Without a change of stance from the Taliban, this money will remain completely unavailable. Last week’s gathering concluded with no mention of the future of women, indicating no end to the sanctions that devastate Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s Rhetoric Emphasizes Afghanistan’s Independence and Isolation

In a speech during the three-day gathering, the Taliban’s leader reportedly said, “Thank God, we are now an independent country. [Foreigners] should not give us their orders, it is our system, and we have our own decisions.” He also emphasized that overseas aid will not help develop Afghanistan but only make them dependent on foreign money.

The Taliban’s rhetoric seemingly points toward a future of continued isolation in Afghanistan.  This expression also proves, at least in the near term, that the Taliban will not fold to the intense economic and international pressures to change their stance.  Afghans will likely suffer with no end in sight and a regime that is unlikely to compromise.

Looking Forward

Until human rights are honored, the world will remain unable to aid Afghanistan’s development.  The economy will continue its freefall, and the Afghan people will suffer the brunt of these pressures. The Taliban have been clear in their desire for independence; however, they continue to resemble an insurgency group and have yet to prove their ability to rule effectively.

The U.S. and western countries should continue to demand human rights as a precursor to discussions. However, humanitarian aid should not be sanctioned or blocked to ease the current crisis and disaster relief processes.

 

Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow

Famine

Impending Famine in Somalia Exacerbated by Al-Shabaab

Somalia has been facing the region’s worst drought and possible famine conditions within the past 40 years.  Experts confirm climate change contributes to the drought conditions impacting the Horn of Africa, including Somalia. Somalians are living in a territory under the control of al-Shabaab and are paying high taxes on the sale of livestock, soil preparation, and harvests; many farmers are fleeing the situation, thus lessening harvests and in turn contributing to the famine conditions worsened by the drought.

Current State of the Drought and Forthcoming Famine

Six districts encompassing over 250,000 people are at high risk of famine in Somalia. 72 out of the 84 districts within the country are impacted directly by three consecutive unsuccessful crop production and rainy seasons, leaving the country at its driest in 40 years and forcing over 500,000 people to relocate. It is estimated that Somalia could suffer from famine within the next month. In 2011, an estimated 250,000 Somalian deaths were attributed to famine. In addition, food insecurity for over six million people has left international aid organizations scrambling to provide food to malnourished individuals.

Background of Al-Shabaab in Somalia

Al-Shabaab formed in the early 2000s has quickly grown into a local and regional threat to Somalia and its border nations including Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Kenya. The organization made significant gains in its early years, however, as more forces entered to mitigate its growing security threat including the African Union, and Western forces, the group was forced from major population centers. Al-Shabaab had many different goals; their overarching theme is to establish an Islamic State in Somalia and oppose any Western-backed government. The locations of the group remain fluid throughout the country, but there are some strongholds in southern and central districts in the country and are vying to gain more control in the north. Ultimately, al-Shabaab still poses a significant security threat both locally and regionally.

Taxes by Al-Shabaab

After a briefing in Mogadishu, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s special envoy for the drought situation, Abdirahman Abdishakur Warsame, stated, “people are fleeing not only the drought, but also insecurity. In areas controlled by al-Shabab, the terrorist group has prevented people from farming.”

Members of al-Shabaab have continued to force crippling taxes upon Somali farmers at such high rates that people have been forced to flee their land. Farmers are forced to pay taxes at every stage of farming and harvesting; the tax when selling livestock is more expensive than the value of the actual animal. These taxes are forcing farmers to flee, thus slowing the production of the already minute harvests throughout the country.

Al-Shabaab currently has control over the majority of the most fertile areas of land in the country that include both the Jubba and Shabelle rivers. It is estimated that the group collects nearly as much tax revenue every year as the entire government of Somalia through sophisticated networks making countering this issue that much more difficult.

Contradicting Actions

In January 2022, al-Shabaab announced that it would start a “drought relief” campaign in an effort to help Somalians and boost their campaign. This action only contradicts their taxing efforts because while they are simultaneously exacerbating the drought and famine, al-Shabaab is attempting to solve the problem in an attempt to gain support from the public. This campaign by al-Shabaab has made no difference in mitigating the famine.

Outlook and Mitigation Efforts

The current outlook of the state of the drought and famine is incredibly grim and is only worsening as taxes by al-Shabaab continue. If there are no drastic changes in the amount of aid currently provided, thousands of Somalians are at risk of famine and will continue to suffer the impacts of climate change firsthand.

The U.S. has decided to redeploy almost 700 ground forces to Somalia to train the Somalian military to counter the growth of al-Shabaab. The Biden administration believes that a persistent presence of U.S. forces in the country will help the Somalian military make more gains against al-Shabaab than they have made in the past year. The African Union has continuously kept forces in the country with the same goal as the U.S. Aid organizations continue to work in Somalia, but as al-Shabaab grows, it makes it harder for them to distribute life-saving aid. One can only hope for a more positive future for a country that has already suffered so much, and hopefully, the end of al-Shabaab could bring Somalia some much-deserved peace.

 

Claire Spethman, Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow

Earthquake

Earthquake in Afghanistan: How Environmental Challenges Threaten Peace

On June 22, at around 1:30 am local time, one of the deadliest earthquakes in Afghanistan’s history struck eastern provinces, killing more than 1,000 people and wounding 1,600. Most homes, hospitals, and buildings in the region are poorly built, which has led to massive infrastructure damage by the earthquake. Even before the Taliban’s rule, emergency response resources were stretched thin. The de facto ruler’s strained relationship with the international community will likely complicate aid efforts. This is another deadly example of Afghanistan’s ecology’s threat to peace prospects in the region. This threat is greatest from natural disasters, water shortages, and climate change.

Natural Disasters

The June 22 earthquake comes amidst an ongoing economic and humanitarian crisis, with half of Afghanistan’s population facing acute hunger. Sadly, natural disasters are not uncommon in Afghanistan. The country is highly prone to intense and frequent disasters due to its location. The most common include earthquakes, flooding, avalanches, landslides, and droughts. In the past 40 years, more than nine million people have been affected, and 20,000 have been lost due to natural disasters.

The effects of these events have profound consequences beyond the loss of life. Natural disasters in Afghanistan continue to hinder peace and development processes. Already pressed for resources, it is unlikely that destroyed infrastructure will have the material means to be rebuilt. Disasters also can lead to higher rates of terrorism in subsequent years. Before the current earthquake, ISIS-K has ramped up attacks against the Taliban. This disaster provides a dangerous opportunity for them, as the de facto ruler’s attention is divided.

Water Shortages

Afghanistan has long suffered from severe water shortages. Nearly 80% of the population relies on farming or animals for income. During Afghanistan’s history, multiple insurgencies have been fought over access to water for agricultural purposes. Today, some estimate that more than 70% of Kabul’s citizens do not have access to safe drinking water. Worse, a study by  John Hopkins University indicates that the demand for water in Kabul will increase by 600% in the next four decades.

As Afghanistan’s population grows rapidly and water becomes scarcer, crisis and conflict over water may grow more desperate. The country does have water resources it is not using; however, weak governance prevents effective utilization of those resources. Tensions over water also loom large in regional politics, making diplomacy an essential tool in resolving this issue. Lastly, water has previously been used as a weapon, with Taliban forces blockading water to farmer’s land. As conditions continue to spiral into desperation, water may again be weaponized. If done, this could prove to be the source of escalation and dispute.

Environmental Degradation

Finally, environmental degradation and changing climatic patterns pose a significant threat to Afghanistan. The country will be disproportionately affected by a change in climate and is entirely unequipped to deal with it. This factor serves as a long-term threat multiplier, worsening the country’s existent poverty and problems. Due to its long-term nature and the government’s inability to cope with the current crisis, it is likely to go unchecked, significantly increasing all ecological threats to the region in coming years.

 

Rise to Peace Author, Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow

Rise to Peace