The Significance of al-Zawahiri’s Death


Rob Dannenberg served as chief of operations for the Counterterrorism Center, chief of the Central Eurasia Division and chief of the CIA’s Information Operations Center before retiring from the Agency.  He served as managing director and head of the Office of Global Security for Goldman Sachs, and director of International Security Affairs at BP and is now an independent consultant and speaker on geopolitical and security risk.

View all articles by Rob Dannenberg

OPINION — There are undoubtedly those who wonder why the President of the United States would bother to address the American public about the death in Kabul of Ayman al Zawahiri, the leader of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden’s second in command during the planning and operational preparations for the attack on the United States on 9/11, among other atrocities. After all, the attack took place over twenty years ago under the presidency of George W. Bush. That is ancient history, and besides didn’t we defeat al Qaeda and the threat of radical Islam long ago?

Zawahiri’s death matters to our enemies. Those in the remaining camps of radical Islam are reminded there are no sanctuaries. Afghanistan, long the Petri dish of extremism that had been marginalized as a geographic source vector on the threat matrix for a couple of decades, was assumed to have become safe again after the precipitous and poorly executed U.S. withdrawal. Safe to come back home, right? Think again. It may not be as safe of a haven as you might have assumed. I can pretty much guarantee that contingency planning was under way long before it was wheels up for the last U.S. plane from Kabul.

Perhaps more importantly, Zawahiri’s death should remind the enemies of the civilized world that we never forget.

Zawahiri’s death matters to Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Ali Khamenei, Kim Jong Un and all the other autocrats that may have believed the false narrative that the United States in particular, and the West in general, are distracted and in decline. They should think again. Russia is seeing its military ground to pieces as a consequence of Putin’s hubris. The West has not backed down against his bullying of Ukraine. However inconsistent and delayed at times the West’s response to Russia’s aggression has been, it has been swifter and harsher than Putin calculated. If Xi assumes that the West will not answer any aggression he may plan against Taiwan, he should think again. If Khamenei wants to build a nuclear weapon and thinks he can get away with it or Kim Jong Un wants to threaten South Korea with another nuclear test, they should think again too, about what that might mean for the future of their regimes.

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Zawahiri’s death should matter to the American public. It is useful for them to be reminded that there are dedicated professionals in the CIA, the Intelligence Community, the US military and in the ranks of our Allies and friends who believe in freedom. These are the real professionals who are undiscouraged by the occasional chirping about “intelligence failures” by pundits and politicians.  Thank goodness our intelligence and military professionals are not distracted by these chirps or allegations of politicization of the U.S. military and intelligence communities. Some of this criticism is brought about by the disinformation campaigns of our enemies. They should think again.

Zawahiri’s death matters to us all. My congratulations to the long list of professionals whose work led to this successful operation.  Osama bin Ladin, Ayman al Zawahiri, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi are all no longer in a position to threaten innocents.

Both our enemies and our citizens should remember that we never forget, we never take a day off, and we always get our target. Always. Those who love freedom should sleep a little sounder now.

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