Muted Reaction to a Terrorist Death
Terry H. Schwadron
Aug. 3, 2022
Maybe it struck you, as it did me, that news coverage and public reactions to the precision drone killing of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri on a Kabul balcony by pushing a button from half a world away was muted.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the coordination, planning and success of assassinating perhaps the world’s top terrorist, a fugitive and target for more than 20 years for his role in master-minding American deaths in multiple episodes that included the Sept. 11, 2001, attack would have brought more expression of universal relief.
This time, it seemed the well-planned, well-executed strike by U.S. intelligence agencies was more a matter-of-fact achievement. While it drew general bipartisan reaction domestically and supportive words from most foreign governments, the targeted killing seemed to simply draw more questions in a world fatigued of tensions.
Almost in the same breath as reporting the drone attack, there were attempts to use the incident to re-question the logic of having withdrawn from Afghanistan a year ago in a messy and fatal operation, and new questions about our deal with the Taliban to keep terrorists out and rekindled wonder about the role of Pakistani security services. How was it possible that Zawahiri was hiding in plain sight living in the home of the Taliban’s interior minister, a man linked closely with al Qaeda campaigns over years.
It took a blink to have a successful counter-terrorism strike dunked into the messy teacup of domestic politics with open speculation of whether it could possibly help right a politically fragile Joe Biden administration, as if this months-long secret surveillance mission is in anyone’s mind as they consider candidates in the off-year congressional elections in November.
The rational conclusion is that al Qaeda terrorism has aged, and somehow fears of international attacks on the United States are no longer front of mind, despite continuing Qaeda plotting.
A Precise Assassination
As the details began to emerge, the story was yet more interesting than the sudden assassination of a 71-year-old terrorist who apparently still was planning new attacks against Americans and the West.
As CNN, among others, reported, the drone launch followed months of highly secret planning by Biden and a tight circle that included examination of a model of Zawahiri’s safe house and lots of presidential questions about so precise an attack as to leave family members untouched in other parts of the same house.
Intelligence agencies told Biden in April that they had found and were tracking Zawahiri — in the home of a Haqqani family member who remains a top Taliban official.
Biden adjudged it important for the U.S. to avoid accidentally killing civilians in the Afghan capital — something that happened even during the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from that country.
On some level, this drone attack was being seen in the White House as confirmation that a decision to leave Afghanistan but to continue “over-the-horizon” surveillance was justified and effective. Apparently, intelligence learned such details as those that showed Zawahiri stayed indoors while his wife, daughter and her children were using “tradecraft” techniques to avoid detection. The building location in downtown Kabul presented challenges for precision.
Biden also was reportedly concerned about not seeming to upset efforts to secure return of any American citizens still held in Afghanistan.
At the end, Biden authorized a “precise tailored airstrike” by two Hellfire missiles fired into the balcony of the safe house at 6:18 a.m. local time.
The reactions were quick, and mostly positive, even from the Senate Republicans who usually line up to blame Biden for everything but the weather. Indeed, the various self-serving remarks and statements reflected the usual, if under-enthusiastic expression of American strength and patriotism in the face of terrorist threats.
Still, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said the White House needed to brief Congress as to whether al Qaeda was using Afghanistan as a haven to commit terrorism. Actually, the administration is required to provide Congress with a classified briefing, so it was unclear whether McCarthy was trying to make a political point.
Meanwhile, some Democrats used the incident to criticize former president Donald Trump for his sponsorship of a gold tournament backed with Saudi money as a tin ear for Sept. 11 families who still blame Saudis for participation in the Qaeda attack.
And, among Republicans, Fox commentator Tucker Carlson all but dismissed the drone attack as a positive, suggesting it took “brass” for Biden to use this assassination to overlook a botched Afghan withdrawal. And Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) who has promoted conspiracy theories including one suggesting that Sept. 11 was a hoax, slammed Biden for trying to “act tough on TV.” Greene insisted that “Joe’s victory lap is ridiculous,” adding that “no one in America has been sweating an attack from Al Qaeda lately or even heard a thing about them.”
After a Trump-ordered attack on an Iranian commander in Iraq, Republicans were vociferous in their chest-thumping. After the killing of Osama bin Laden, the cheers were bipartisan and loud.
Overseas, there were more muted supportive words from allies. There was silence from Russian leader Vladimir Putin and a guarded statement from China rejecting all forms of terrorism but opposed to “double standards” on counter-terrorism operations and at the “expense of sovereignty” of other countries — apparently a reference to the visit to Taiwan by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
We seem to have filed eliminating Qaeda threats in a business-as-usual drawer.