The killing of al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri (71) somewhere in Kabul last Saturday marks the triumph of technology. As US president Joe Biden claimed, there was no American on the ground in the Afghan capital to mastermind the highly-successful operation. It was a “precise, tailored airstrike”, using a drone, that took the life of America’s “enemy No. 1”. The Taliban ruling the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan have confirmed the killing, though they condemned it. The US intelligence authorities have every right to claim credit for the killing, which has not caused any collateral damage. They had precise information about Zawahiri staying with the remnant of his family in a double-storied house in the Sherpur area of Kabul. Two “Hellfire” missiles were released from the drone the moment he appeared alone in the balcony. It was 11 years ago that his predecessor and al-Qaeda founder Osama bin-Laden was killed at his residence at Abbottabad in Pakistan. In that instance, specially-trained commandos, called Navy Seals, had to be deployed to kill him and take away his body for a deep-sea burial before the world knew about it. If the Pakistani authorities were embarrassed that bin-Laden was safely hiding in their country, the feelings of the Taliban could not be any different. They had been claiming that Afghanistan was not a hiding place for anyone. In fact, in the Doha agreement, the Taliban had given an undertaking that they would not harbour any al-Qaeda operatives. Like bin-Laden could not have lived at Abbottabad without the knowledge and approval of the Pakistani government, al-Zawahiri could not have taken up residence in Kabul without the Taliban’s sanction. Once again, the Taliban have proved that they cannot be trusted to keep their word. President Biden has the personal satisfaction that he was at the White House when the two al-Qaeda leaders were killed, first as vice-president and then as president. The news has considerable political significance for the president as the US economy is now in a bad shape and he is unable to control inflation. No doubt, al-Zawahiri had been an enemy to the US ever since 2977 Americans were killed on American soil on 9/11. He was also believed to have masterminded the attacks on US interests in Kenya and Tanzania, not to mention the attack on the USS Cole naval destroyer in Aden.
Al-Zawahiri was one of the world’s topmost terrorists. Born in a rich, aristocratic Egyptian family, he served a term in the jail as an accused in the assassination of Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat. What turned him against Sadat was the latter’s rapprochement with the Israelis. A turning point in his career was the chance meeting with bin-Laden, the Saudi prince, who found in al-Zawahiri, a qualified surgeon and an able deputy. For all their closeness, he found that bin Laden’s shoes were too big for him. Of course, he tried to keep the al-Qaeda alive and kicking but other players like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant stole a march over his organisation. In fact, al-Zawahiri had been reduced to what he was at the time of his death, a grandfather enjoying the company of his daughter and her children. Not that he did not make efforts to keep himself relevant and a source of inspiration for Islamists the world over. Alas, he was like a tiger which lost its teeth but pretended to be as ferocious as in the past.
At no point of time did al-Qaeda have any influence in India. While it could draw cadres even from rich countries like the US, Canada and France, it virtually drew a blank in India. True, al-Zawahiri made an effort to have a unit in Kashmir, which he often compared to Palestine, but the determined efforts of Indian security forces thwarted the attempt and their local leader was even eliminated. Like an empty vessel that can make a lot of sound, he continued to blabber. As recently as in April this year, he made a statement on the hijab issue in Karnataka. A little over a month ago, he even threatened terrorist strikes in Delhi, Mumbai and several places in Uttar Pradesh. The government knew that he did not have any cadres worth the name to execute his threat. That he was present in Afghanistan and enjoying the support of the ruling Taliban should be a matter of grave concern for India. The second-in-command in al-Qaeda is believed to be in Afghanistan after his sojourn in Iran. India, which has made heavy infrastructural investments in Afghanistan, cannot afford to have al-Qaeda thriving in its own backyard.