The killing of al Qaeda’s leader shows we can wage ‘over-the-horizon’ counterterrorism

Associated Press
Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahri (left) is shown with Osama bin Laden in Khost, Afghanistan, in 1998. Al Zawahri, who was bin Laden’s chief aide, was killed by a U.S. drone strike on Aug. 1, 2022.

As the U.S. withdrew its troops from Afghanistan last August, many analysts feared the U.S. intelligence community would lose its vast counterterrorism capabilities in this turbulent country that had been the springboard for al Qaeda’s 9/11 attack. At the time, the Pentagon and the Biden administration, however, assured the world that America could still launch counterterrorism strikes from U.S. bases in “over-the-horizon” places such as Qatar, Kuwait and elsewhere against al Qaeda, ISIS-K or other terrorist threats, should they manifest themselves in the Taliban Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. 

“We’ve developed counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the United States in the region and to act quickly and decisively if needed,” President Biden said on Aug. 16, 2021. White House Press Secretary Jack Kirby similarly stated, “There isn’t a part of the earth we can’t reach, if required, and we do not always need a presence on the ground to effectively strike.”

Many reacted with skepticism to this claim. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), for example, stated: “We have not heard anything from President Biden’s team that resembles a real plan because ‘over the horizon’ is rhetoric, not strategy.” 

I was similarly skeptical. Having worked for the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center to track the movements of Taliban and al Qaeda suicide bombers in Afghanistan’s Regional Command East, I knew that our greatest assets in the war against the terrorists were our indigenous Afghan allies. But our troop withdrawal led to the sudden and unexpected collapse of the allied Afghan government, Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police and the Afghan National Directorate of Security. Many frontline allies were either evacuated or forced to go into hiding as the vengeful Taliban hunted them down. Spy networks that took two decades to build were destroyed, and it appeared that America had lost not only its frontline CIA counterterrorism stations in Afghanistan, but its vital spy assets.  

The remarkable victory in killing the most wanted man in the world — al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri — in a drone strike in the heart of Taliban-controlled Kabul on Aug. 1, however, would seem to vindicate the president’s belief in America’s over-the-horizon counterterrorism capabilities. Whether the elusive terrorist leader was located via humint (human intelligence) spies still operating in Afghanistan or techint (technical intelligence), the fact that the CIA tracked down a wanted terrorist in a remote land and killed him from afar is testimony to its ability to maintain and project counterterrorism capabilities.

A similar scenario has played out in the democratic Kurdish lands of northern Syria, which President Trump abandoned to a Turkish invasion in mid-October 2019. Despite the chaos of the U.S. troop withdrawal and abandonment of our CIA intelligence-gathering stations and Syrian Kurdish allies in the war on ISIS, the CIA and Pentagon subsequently were able to locate the elusive Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Iraq-based U.S. Delta Forces were able to launch a dangerous, long-distance heliborne raid on his compound in western Syria’s Idlib province, killing the man who was then most-wanted in the world on Oct. 27, 2019.  

Al Baghdadi’s successor as ISIS caliph, Ibrahim al Qurayshi, was similarly located in a compound in the same Turkish-dominated western Syria region and killed in a risky Special Forces heliborne strike launched on Feb. 4, 2022.

There have been other successful commando and drone strikes on terrorists operating in Libya, Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen that speak to robust intelligence gathering being married to state-of-the-art, long-distance killing technology and Special Forces capabilities that clearly demonstrate America no longer necessarily needs to occupy foreign lands to take out terrorists who operate in them.

Brian Glyn Williams is a professor of Islamic history at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and the author of “Predators: The CIA’s Drone War on al Qaeda.”

Tags Al Qaeda Ayman al Zawahiri counterterrorism Drone strike terrorists

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