Vindication Finally Comes for 9/11, Afghanistan Victims, But Islamic Extremism Remains Potent Force

In the first known U.S. counter-terrorism operation in Afghanistan since the Biden administration’s ignoble (read: embarrassing, shameful, dishonorable, inept, and disastrous) withdrawal a year ago, al Qaeda boss Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed when a pair of variant Hellfire missiles crushed and minced him as he read alone on his Kabul balcony. 

Al-Zawahiri was a bad dude who deserved to die. While the September 11 attacks that hit the World Trade Center and Pentagon made Osama bin Laden enemy number one, he could never have carried out the attacks without al-Zawahiri. As the al Qaeda deputy, al-Zawahiri brought the tactical nous and organizational skills required to discipline a band of angry militants into a lethal network of terror cells spread across the globe. 

Of the al Qaeda leaders who had a hand in planning 9/11 attacks, al-Zawahiri was the last thug standing. Christians, as ought all men and women of good will, should celebrate that justice has finally been done. 

We ought also to celebrate the manner in which justice was served. Providence friend William Imboden—who is executive director of the Clements Center National Security at UT Austin—posted an excellent laudatory op-ed at World on the CIA surveillance and analysis operation that hunted and killed al-Zawahiri. It was a peach. Not only was the operation a masterclass in tradecraft, but it demonstrated the moral probity of America’s commitment to just and discriminate warfare, represented, in this case, by the Reaper remote piloted aircraft program and U.S. weapons innovations that give us the kinds of weapons we require to not only fight the right fights rightly but to fight them effectively as well.

Anyone paying attention to Providence over the years is familiar with our defense of remote piloted aircraft represented by the Predator and Reaper platforms. Not everyone has been as sanguine as I have. To be fair, the RPA program arguably had doomed public relations from the start. They aren’t technically drones—unpiloted aircraft that fly autonomously. The human pilot has only been displaced, not removed altogether. But this seeming lack of humanity is amplified in the design: there’s no cockpit, no glass canopy, you never see the person. It’s a faceless machine that, frankly, looks like it’s flying upside down. Its waspish appearance (the insect, not pale Protestants) too easily conjures up images of Terminator-style robots. As an RPA piloted one suggested aloud: if only they had painted eyes on the thing, we might have avoided many such creepy misgivings.

But appearances aside, the Reaper is tailor-made for the kind of long-term surveillance necessitated by the tracking of al-Zawahiri. Allegedly able to stay aloft under certain conditions for up to almost two days, the Reaper allows for the careful, painstaking collection of data required to establish the identity of targets, build an understanding of the target’s pattern of life, exploit that pattern for strike opportunities, and then make the kill at a time when collateral damage can be contained to a minimum. Add to this capacity the kinds of low-yield—and, indeed, non-explosive—munitions used to kill al-Zawahiri and the Reaper combines mission effectiveness and non-combatant immunity that is unachievable in many, if not most, battlefield scenarios. Joe Chapa, a U.S. Air Force officer who once flew the Predator, has written an outstanding reflection on the morality of the RPA program. Is Remote Warfare Moral? ought to be required reading. 

Justice and the commendable operational triumph aside, the killing of al-Zawahiri will likely lead to more than a little reflection on the nature of the war on terror and to the re-litigation of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, especially as the anniversary of that Charlie Foxtrot is hard upon us.

Regarding the former, while the killing of al-Zawahiri is its own good—for it served as the vindication of justice and the victims of injustice—and, therefore, was both just and desirable without reference to additional considerations, it remains true that the war on terror will never likely be won by Hellfire missiles—whether of the explosive or ninja variety. This does not mean we do not kill the leaders of terrorist networks who pose active threats to American interests whenever circumstances allow. It does mean that the ideological war continues. The world will only ever really be safe from terror when there are no terrorists. There will only ever be no terrorists when no one wants to become one. To expect such a world is the kind of idealism against which Providence spends a good deal of its time writing and speaking. Still, we mustn’t err on the side of cynicism anymore than on the side of sentimentalism. The just war doctrine of “last resort” suggests that there are things that can be left of boom to prevent or limit certain kinds of human evils. Doing so, the tradition hopes, will help limit the necessity of war. Meanwhile, of course, we had better be masters of whack-o-mole. In many cases, that will have to do.

Regarding the latter point, supporters of Biden’s manner of withdrawal from Afghanistan will claim the al-Zawahiri kill as vindication of both the Administration’s withdrawal (which was cockamamy, inane, witless, and foolish) as well as the Administration’s belief that we can prevent Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist haven through over-the-horizon strikes alone. 

Of course, we should remember that until the successful al-Zawahiri kill, the last U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan—which occurred on August 29th, 2021—was an over-the-horizon strike that was supposed to have killed a pair of ISIS terrorists but which, in reality, killed 10 civilians, including 7 children. Before the ghastly reality of the botched attack became clear, President Biden lauded what he thought proved his counterterror strategy was viable. He was wrong about that. We should not be too quick to conclude that the successful al-Zawahiri strike proves his strategy is now viable. With two over-the-horizon attacks in Afghanistan now available for comparison, we should learn what we can about the possibilities and limitations of such a counterterror approach. Almost certainly, al-Zawahiri—as a known target—is not an accurate model for how future over-the-horizon hunt-and-kill operations will go—especially when dealing with emerging versus known threats. Not all of our new enemies will announce themselves and simply go and read on open balconies. 

If nothing else, al-Zawahiri’s appearance on a balcony in Kabul raises its own concerns. Apparently, the house he was in when killed belonged to a top aide of a senior Taliban leader. Afghanistan still boasts the highest density of Islamic terrorists anywhere in the world. Al-Zawahiri’s apparent confidence that he was safe in Kabul should prove that al-Qaeda and others feel at liberty to reconstitute in Afghanistan. This is the kind of mess that those of us who opposed the U.S. withdrawal—even as we championed a prudent drawdown—had hoped to avoid.

In the final analysis, we ought to rightly celebrate the CIA’s outstanding performance, and take solace that justice has finally been done—21 years after the original crime—and can rejoice that the families of the victims of 9/11 might find some degree of closure or at least satisfaction in the fact both that al-Zawahiri has been justly punished and that he will no more pose a threat. Nevertheless, in the greater scheme of things, nothing will change: this is business as usual, and we must continue to maintain constant vigilance.