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Zawahiri is dead; justice is served

William Inboden | The successful mission to kill the terrorist leader is a CIA triumph


A drone loaded with Hellfire missiles Jason Sweeney/U.S. Army via Associated Press

Zawahiri is dead; justice is served
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Ayman al-Zawahiri is dead. As we approach the 21st anniversary of 9/11, the last remaining Al Qaeda terrorist leader who helped plan the bloodiest attack on our soil in history has now had justice served to him by a Hellfire missile launched from an American drone in Afghanistan.

Many Americans may not recognize his name. Ayman al-Zawahiri never achieved the level of recognition and notoriety of his compatriot Osama bin Laden. But he was no less wicked than bin Laden. A longtime Egyptian terrorist who played a role in the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, Zawahiri later helped bin Laden found al Qaeda and served as bin Laden’s chief deputy for almost two decades. After bin Laden’s death in 2011 at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALs, Zawahiri slithered up to be al Qaeda’s leader for the past decade. He was the most wanted terrorist in the world and had the blood of thousands of Americans and other innocents on his hands.

As Christians, we should not take morbid joy in the death of any human being, but we can and should rejoice when justice is visited on an evildoer. Recall Romans 13:4’s admonition: “[the ruler] is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”

In this case, a Hellfire missile served as a twenty-first-century version of the sword of wrath.

The CIA deserves commendation for the care it showed to spare innocent lives in the strike. A cardinal tenet of the Christian just war tradition is that in using force against a legitimate target, authorities must make every effort to minimize civilian casualties. Once our intelligence sources determined that Zawahiri was in his Kabul house, the United States could have used an explosive missile or bomb strike to destroy the entire structure—but that would have risked killing innocent bystanders along with the terrorist leader. Rather, by reportedly using an RX9 Hellfire which deploys six lethal blades instead of any explosive warhead, the strike hit only Zawahiri without harming any non-combatants.

That Zawahiri evaded capture or killing for over two decades testifies to his wiles and resilience. That the United States relentlessly pursued him for that long testifies to our nation’s resolve, especially that of our military and intelligence community. Justice may have been delayed, but it was not denied.

Though we do not yet know (and may never know) the details of the intelligence process that discovered and then confirmed Zawahiri’s presence in the house, it is already evident that it was a remarkable feat of tradecraft. Intelligence collection in a denied area—and Kabul under the Taliban is a textbook definition of a “denied area”—is one of the most difficult feats in the business. Presumably, some combination of human sources, signals intercepts, liaison work with partner governments, and skilled analysis provided the confirmation needed to order the strike. This is a triumph for the CIA.

It is also fitting that (according to news reports) the Agency operated the drone strike that killed al-Zawahiri. Since 9/11, sixty CIA officers have had their stars added to the Wall of Honor at CIA headquarters, honoring those who died in the line of duty—many of them in attacks overseen by Zawahiri. From Mike Spann to the Khost Seven to so many others whose names can never be disclosed, these courageous spies gave their lives to protect our nation. I have visited the Wall many times and can attest to its solemn power, all the more because of its subdued anonymity.

Zawahiri’s death also poses some policy challenges. Though he is gone, a new generation of terrorists has come of age in various jihadist franchises operating from south Asia to the Middle East to the Horn of Africa and the Sahel. All of them wish ill on the United States and our allies, and too many of them possess the means to visit that ill on us. While most strategists and national security policymakers rightly focus now on China and Russia as our principal foes, the terrorist threat cannot be forgotten.

Then there is Afghanistan. This month marks one year since America’s disastrous withdrawal from that troubled country, abandoning it to the Taliban’s rule. In an almost comical understatement, the New York Times article on al-Zawahiri’s killing notes that “His return to Kabul with the Taliban takeover raises questions about the group’s commitment to keeping Al Qaeda out of the country.”

Actually, it does not raise questions—rather, it gives a clear answer. Zawahiri would not have ventured back to Kabul from the cave he had been hiding in for the past decade in the remote peaks of the Hindu Kush without a welcome invitation from the Taliban. Zawahiri’s residence in Kabul for the past several months speaks volumes about the Taliban’s ongoing collaboration with al Qaeda.

Many national security experts worried that America’s abandonment of Afghanistan would allow it to once again become a terrorist haven. That is exactly what it has become.


William Inboden

William Inboden is executive director and William Powers Jr. chair at the William P. Clements Jr. Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and editor in chief of the Texas National Security Review. Previously he served as senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council at the White House. Inboden also worked at the Department of State as a member of the Policy Planning Staff and a special adviser in the Office of International Religious Freedom.

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