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President Joe Biden gave a rare primetime address Monday night to announce that the CIA, on his orders, conducted a drone strike that killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri. Zawahri is a longtime radical Islamist leader who succeeded Usama bin Laden as head of al Qaeda in 2011 and masterminded the deadly terrorist attacks against the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
This drone strike may validate President Biden’s plan to target terrorists in Afghanistan with “over the horizon” strikes, something many experts questioned. In addition, the administration claims no civilians were killed in the attack.
If this is all true, President Biden deserves credit for a major national security win.
But I have questions about this strike.
The timing of this attack, coming one year after Biden’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan and three months before the November midterm elections, is incredibly coincidental. Moreover, given the tendency of this president and his senior officials to make statements on national security that have proved too implausible or inaccurate and later need to be walked back, I want to see Congress fully investigate this attack.
For example, why did this strike happen now? With no Western press on the ground, how can the American people be sure exactly what happened? Can we verify the U.S. actually got Zawahri and that there were no civilian casualties?
Another issue is whether killing Zawahri, who was 71 and in ill health, will make any difference in protecting the U.S. from terrorist attacks since there were plans to name a successor to Zawahri before he was killed.
FILE — A frame grab from a videotape aired 05 August 2006 on the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television network shows Al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman Al-Zawahiri at an undisclosed place and time.
(AFP via Getty Images)
A more important question is whether President Biden’s decision to take out Zawahri means his administration will finally recognize radical Islamist terrorist as a high priority national security issue instead of several trivial issues it has stressed in its national security policy such as climate change.
After President Trump’s leadership caused ISIS to suffered massive defeats in Iraq and Syria, loss of its caliphate on the ground, the terrorist organization is making a comeback in the Middle East and has established a major presence in Afghanistan and Africa.
ISIS is the world’s predominant terrorist organization, significantly larger and more influential than its predecessor, al Qaeda. Al Qaeda, however, remains a dangerous organization and is also undergoing a resurgence in Afghanistan and Africa.
History shows that whenever terrorist groups like al Qaeda or ISIS establish strongholds, they will eventually use them as launching pads to spread their insurgency to other areas, often with major acts of terrorism. There is a high probability of this happening again.
Hopefully, President Biden’s decision to take out Ayman al-Zawahri is an indication that he and his senior officials recognize this and that the drone strike that killed him was not done principally to score political points.
Fred Fleitz previously served as National Security Council Chief of staff, CIA analyst, and a House Intelligence Committee staff member. He is currently vice-chair of the America First Policy Institute Center for American Security. Follow him on Twitter @fredfleitz.