On August 1, 2022, US President Joe Biden announced that he authorized a drone strike to kill Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda and former deputy to Usama bin Laden, in Kabul, Afghanistan, after tracking the leader’s family. President Biden announced that the strike—marking the first US strike in Afghanistan since the August 2021 US troop withdrawal—was successfully conducted on July 30, 2022.
For years, despite numerous rumors of his death and declining health, al-Zawahiri evaded being located, killed, or captured. His presence in Afghanistan under the Taliban’s leadership casts doubt on the Taliban government’s willingness to deny safe haven to al-Qaeda in the country. Taliban official Zabihullah Mujahid issued a statement on behalf of his government condemning the drone strike, citing an alleged violation of the Doha agreement.
As of August 2, 2022, neither official nor affiliated al-Qaeda outlets have confirmed the death of al-Zawahiri. Several users on the group’s RocketChat server have asked for verification of President Biden’s announcement; however, no confirmation was given to any of those requesting such information.
Details of the operation
On August 1, 2022, US President Biden announced that the US launched a drone strike killing al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a counter-terrorism operation, which Biden noted incurred no civilian casualties. According to officials, al-Zawahiri, who was a former deputy to Usama bin Laden, was on a safe house balcony when he was targeted by hellfire missiles on July 30.
For several years, al-Zawahiri, just like bin Laden, managed to survive in hiding without being killed or captured. However, since the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, officials were reportedly able to track al-Zawahiri’s family—and ultimately al-Zawahiri himself—to a Kabul safehouse, which was reportedly owned by Sirajuddin Haqqani, a Taliban and Haqqani network leader.
Chatter regarding al-Zawahiri’s death
As of August 2, 2022, there has been no official statement released by al-Qaeda nor any of its affiliates confirming the death of al-Zawahiri.
Several users on RocketChat have expressed concerns regarding the news, asking if al-Zawahiri was dead or alive. However, no chat member was able to give a definitive response on whether the news was true. One user said they heard the news on CNN.
Another user on RocketChat urged followers of the group to “rise up” and remember that “now is the time for jihad.” He added that all followers should use the following hashtag to share on Twitter: “#أيمن_الظواهري,” or Ayman al-Zawahiri’s name in Arabic.
Another RocketChat user also said there were no official confirmations yet of the death of al-Zawahiri, but “close sources have revealed the incident is true.”
Al-Qaeda supporters primarily operate online on the group’s RocketChat server and disseminate information on Chirpwire and the as-Sahab website. Although such actors, in addition to official al-Qaeda units, utilize Telegram, the group’s activity on Telegram is relatively inconsistent due to routine takedowns by the platform.
Al-Zawahiri played a significant role in planning some of the most notorious and deadliest terrorist attacks targeting the West and Western interests. Although al-Qaeda failed to launch similarly successful large-scale operations in the West under al-Zawahiri’s leadership as it did under bin Laden’s, al-Zawahiri was a prolific propagandist.
Even over the past year, al-Zawahiri was featured in numerous videos addressing the issues facing the Muslim community, consistently demonizing the West and calling for violence. Furthermore, al-Zawahiri launched a lecture series discussing the impact of globalization on Islam. In an apparent display of continued al-Qaeda-ISIS enmity, in his latest lecture video, al-Zawahiri criticized groups such as ISIS without identifying them by name, and claimed that providing baya’a (pledge of allegiance) to a group that threatens and kills other Muslims should be condemned. ISIS is known for adhering to takfirism, in which Muslims deemed to be nonbelievers should be killed.
Although al-Zawahiri’s death remains unconfirmed by al-Qaeda and a potential successor remains unknown, Flashpoint assesses with moderate confidence that given his seniority, Saif al-Adel is the most likely candidate. Al-Adel is reportedly currently living in Iran and his ties to the group remained discreet. Al-Adel, also an Egyptian national, was the interim leader of the group in May 2011 following the death of Usama bin Laden.
Flashpoint assesses with moderate confidence that al-Zawahiri’s death and the identity of his successor are likely to be announced concurrently by al-Qaeda, based on the group’s previous announcements on significant events.