A Time to End the Killing: The Significance of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Death

by John Whitehead



Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor who became the head of al Qaeda, reportedly met his death on July 30. President Joseph Biden announced that Zawahiri had been killed in Kabul, Afghanistan, by a US airstrike. The airstrike may have been carried out with a missile fired by a drone.

The US killing of Zawahiri, who was a leading figure in al Qaeda since before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is a crucial moment for reflection. US policymakers and citizens should reflect on the almost-21-year Global War on Terror and the similarly long-lasting US policy of targeted killing of alleged terrorists. Zawahiri’s death is a sign that the time has come finally to end both these policies.


Zawahiri was originally involved in extremist politics in Egypt, co-founding an organization there known as Jamaat al-Jihad. This organization was involved in the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Zawahiri subsequently spent years in prison, where he may have suffered torture. After his release, he formed an alliance with Osama Bin Laden, eventually merging Jamaat al-Jihad with al Qaeda.


Zawahiri was reportedly involved in planning multiple terrorist attacks, including the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Following the US invasion of Afghanistan (during which Zawahiri’s wife was killed), he went into hiding, presumably in Pakistan. When US forces killed Bin Laden in 2011, Zawahiri became al Qaeda’s new leader. He occasionally released writing and video speeches, although how much power he wielded over an increasingly splintered organization is unclear.


That Zawahiri was living in Afghanistan when US intelligence located him may create threats to the Afghan people. Although the Taliban publicly denies knowledge of the al Qaeda leader’s presence in their country, his presence suggests that the ruling regime is allowing terrorist groups to find refuge in Afghanistan. Providing haven to terrorists is contrary to a US-Taliban agreement, and following Zawahiri’s killing US Secretary of State Antony Blinken publicly accused the Taliban of having “grossly violated” the agreement.


This apparent violation may provide the justification for continued economic punishment of ordinary Afghans. Afghanistan has been in a humanitarian crisis since the Taliban’s takeover. The US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction recently estimated that almost 19 million Afghans face “potentially life-threatening” hunger. Current foreign aid flows are insufficient to meet the need, and the United States is aggravating the situation through economic sanctions and by withholding billions in frozen Afghan government assets.


Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul must not become justification for continuing to damage Afghanistan’s economy. Current policies hurt many people while likely doing little to prevent the Taliban from sheltering terrorists (an activity that requires far fewer resources than sustaining a functioning economy). The Afghan people desperately need assistance, which requires lifting sanctions, unfreezing funds, and providing humanitarian aid.


Rather than being an occasion for hurting more people, the killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri should become an occasion to end the US policy of killing alleged terrorists.


The targeted killing policy was adopted in late 2002, in response to 9/11. Since then, the policy has certainly taken its toll. Osama Bin Laden is dead. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, is dead. Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who became a propagandist for al Qaeda in Yemen, is dead. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the al Qaeda off-shoot ISIS, is dead, as is his successor Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. These men are a few of the roughly 5,000 people killed by US targeted killing. Now, Ayman al-Zawahiri, one of the “original generation” of al Qaeda terrorists, is dead.


After almost two decades and thousands of deaths, targeted killing can no longer be justified as an exceptional response to a crisis. It has become a normal part of US foreign policy. To continue this practice is to accept a permanent situation in which the American president can serve as judge, jury, and executioner for any human being on earth under the justification of fighting terrorism.


This situation must end. The original 2001 Authorization of Military Force (AUMF) against al Qaeda must be repealed and, if necessary, laws explicitly prohibiting targeted killing must be passed.


Please consider contacting your representatives in the House and Senate to call for repealing the 2001 AUMF.


Please also consider contacting your representatives and the Biden administration, whether by phone or email, to urge them to end sanctions on Afghanistan and release frozen Afghan funds.


Giving to humanitarian organizations working in Afghanistan — such as World Food Program U.S.A., Catholic Relief Services, or other organizations — is also an important way to help.


Let’s not follow the killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri with still more killing. Let’s turn away from targeted killing and toward policies that alleviate the suffering of those in need.


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