The U.S. drone strike that killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri has weakened the group but has not reduced the threat of terrorist attacks, according to a U.S. intelligence report obtained exclusively by Yahoo News.
"The death of overall amir Ayman al-Zawahiri — coming after the losses of several senior leaders since 2017 — will deal a significant blow to al-Qa'ida, further stressing the viability of the group's global leadership structure and threatening its position in the global jihadist movement," stated an assessment circulated on Aug. 3 by the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center and marked "Not Releasable to the Public or Foreign Governments."
“Zawahiri’s removal, however, is unlikely to change the overall threat posed by al-Qa‘ida’s regional affiliates, which continue to exploit areas of reduced CT pressure [counterterrorism pressure] and take advantage of local grievances to gain access to resources, recruits, and targets,” the assessment continued.
The greatest al-Qaida threat to the U.S. comes from the terrorist network’s affiliate groups, the report stated. Counterterrorism pressure “during the last two decades has forced the group to shift operations targeting the Homeland and the West from being centrally managed by senior leaders to being augmented and then largely supplanted by the group’s affiliates’ external plotting efforts,” it said.
The assessment identified “Al-Qa‘ida’s affiliates in Yemen and Africa” as those that pose the “main threat from the organization” in that they continue to wage “attacks on US and Western interests in the regions where they operate.”
The U.S. National Counterterrorism Center declined to comment.
“Zawahari [sic] was the emir of al-Qaida and we assess that his death deals a significant blow to Al Qaida’s leadership structure, strategic plans and ongoing operations,” a spokesperson for the National Security Council replied when asked to respond to the intelligence assessment obtained by Yahoo News. “This operation eliminated a serious threat. We will continue to be vigilant as necessary to defend our nation against terrorist threats, and take action to bring terrorists to justice and remove them from the battlefield like we did this weekend.”
On Monday, President Biden announced that al-Zawahri, a longtime al-Qaida leader and a mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, had been killed in Kabul, Afghanistan, in a CIA drone strike.
“People around the world no longer need to fear the vicious and determined killer,” Biden said in a televised address to the nation. “The United States continues to demonstrate our resolve and our capacity to defend the American people against those who seek to do us harm.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken followed up those remarks by declaring that “The world is a safer place following the death of Zawahiri.”
But according to the U.S. intelligence assessment obtained by Yahoo News, the U.S. government believes that his death won’t significantly reduce the threat of terrorism posed by al-Qaida and its affiliates.
“It’s more a symbolic victory, an important one for sure, but what does this really change? Is al-Qaida even relevant anymore?” said a senior intelligence official involved in tracking threats from the terrorist group.
“[Zawahri’s] been mostly irrelevant to the West this past decade, and I’m not sure his death makes him more significant,” said Marc Sageman, former CIA officer and current independent scholar, adding, “What is happening in the Middle East, Africa and Asia is far more complicated and intertwined with local politics.”
This intelligence bulletin comes as federal agencies are warning police nationwide that the greatest threat stemming from the death of al-Zawahri is from lone offenders and al-Qaida sympathizers unknown to law enforcement who are already inside the U.S.
“We assess that the primary terrorist threat to the Homeland stemming from the death of al-Zawahiri is from lone offenders inspired by foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs). While homegrown violent extremists (HVEs) generally have not conducted attacks in response to singular events, including senior foreign terrorist deaths, it is possible that some individuals may draw additional inspiration from the US operation against al-Zawahiri,” a joint intelligence bulletin sent to local, state and federal law enforcement earlier this week stated.
“While DHS, FBI, and NCTC have no indications of current al-Qa‘ida plotting in the United States, al-Qa‘ida’s associates and its global affiliates may attempt to accelerate previously planned efforts to attack the West, possibly in order to counter perceptions that the loss of their leader has weakened the organization,” said the Aug. 3 report, a copy of which was obtained by Yahoo News.
“Al-Qa‘ida probably is not postured to quickly launch new operations specifically designed to avenge him,” the report continued. “Any response from al-Qa‘ida in the United States would most likely involve attempts to conduct operations using ties to individuals with a pre-existing presence in the United States.”
The joint bulletin notes that no retaliatory attacks were carried out in response to the U.S. 2011 operation in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden, but it urges law enforcement to be on the lookout for indicators associated with pre-attack planning.
DHS, the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center “are monitoring the group’s key affiliates for signs of plotting that could potentially result in attacks on US interests and citizens abroad,” the bulletin says.