Just under a year ago, President Biden asked this question: “What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point, with Al-Qaeda gone?”
Just over a week ago, he provided an answer. On his order, a drone launched two modified Hellfire missiles at Ayman al-Zawahiri, the 71-year-old emir of Al-Qaeda, who was taking his morning tea on the balcony of a well-appointed home in an exclusive Kabul neighborhood.
Al-Zawahiri had come in from the cold, as it were. He’d been hiding out in remote locations since 2011, when Seal Team Six killed Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda’s founder and first leader. Despite the isolation, he achieved goals: Al-Qaeda today controls more territory than ever, with branches in the Indo-Pacific, Middle East and Africa.
After last August’s shambolic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s subsequent takeover, he had evidently come to believe he could return to the capital to work in comfort and safety. It was a fatal mistake.
The house in which Al-Zawahiri resided is owned by Sirajuddin Haqqani, one of two Taliban deputy emirs. In February of 2020, The New York Times gave him space for an op-ed (without, by the way, sparking fury from the paper’s staff, as occurred when Sen. Tom Cotton was afforded the same privilege), in which he asserted: “Reports about foreign groups in Afghanistan are politically motivated exaggerations by the warmongering players on all sides of the war.”
Taliban negotiators later promised not to cooperate with Al-Qaeda or other groups “threatening the security of the United States and its allies.” President Trump and President Biden apparently believed them. That, too, was a fatal mistake.
Eliminating terrorist leaders is useful. But those waging what they regard as a 1,400-year-old jihad against infidels, heretics and apostates tend to be tenacious. The phrase “forever war” doesn’t daunt them. It inspires them.
The rulers of China and Russia also are waging a kind of war against the West. Neo-isolationists—they prefer to be called “restrainers”—will argue that we can’t deal with all these threats simultaneously. But to survive in the jungle you must defend yourself not just against lions. The crocodiles can eat you, too.
Israelis have come to terms with this reality. Iran’s rulers threaten them with genocide, as does Hezbollah, Tehran’s Lebanon-based proxy. Against these and other enemies, Israelis fight both wars and “wars between wars.”
They’ve tried other approaches. In 2005, they withdrew from Gaza, which they’d seized from Egypt in the defensive war of 1967. Their hope was that Palestinians would transform the territory into Dubai on the Mediterranean. Instead, Hamas waged a civil war against the Palestinian Authority, decisively taking power in in 2007.
Hamas does not invite P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas to visit. But it does tolerate another rival: Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which is fully funded, armed and guided by Iran’s rulers. (Though Hamas also receives weapons and cash from Tehran, it maintains a bit more independence.)
Following an 11-day conflagration with Hamas last May, the Israelis have been attempting to make life easier for Gazans. That has meant assisting efforts to rebuild infrastructure and provide more reliable electricity. Up to 14,000 Gazans have been permitted to enter Israel to work for higher wages than they could command at home. Hamas leaders, thinking strategically, have not been uncooperative.
PIJ, however, cannot abide even a temporary détente. Israeli intelligence learned that the group was preparing terrorist attacks not only from Gaza but also from the northern West Bank. PIJ fighters have been gradually displacing the PA security forces in this area and clashing with the Israeli Defense Forces, which have been responding to a wave of terrorist attacks that has claimed 19 Israeli lives since March. Knowing PIJ’s intentions, the Israelis decided it was necessary to do what they could to degrade its capabilities.
On Monday, the IDF arrested the PIJ leader in the West Bank, Bassem al-Sa’adi. On Friday, the IDF launched a precision airstrike in Gaza, killing PIJ northern Gaza division commander Taysir al-Jabari. On Saturday, the IDF killed PIJ southern Gaza division commander Khaled Mansour and several other senior PIJ officials.
PIJ fired more than a thousand missiles at Israeli cities and towns. Many fell short, killing Palestinians, including four children in Jabalya in southern Gaza, according to Israeli officials. Other missiles were destroyed by the Iron Dome system. On Monday, with Egypt acting as broker, a ceasefire was announced.
PIJ leader Ziyad al-Nakhaleh spent the weekend in Tehran meeting with Ebrahim Raisi, the president of the Islamic Republic. What are they planning to do next? Your guess is as good as mine (though perhaps not as good as the Mossad’s).
Israelis today are at peace with more of their neighbors than ever before. Though they are always willing to participate in “peace talks,” they understand the Reaganesque doctrine that peace is achieved through strength. And strength must be demonstrated—repeatedly and consistently.
Al-Qaeda and PIJ have been hit hard. But neither organization will be “gone” anytime soon.
Al-Qaeda will soon have a new emir. The frontrunner appears to be Saif al-Adel, a 62-year-old former Egyptian special forces colonel, a longtime Al-Qaeda leader who has been living in Iran as the regime’s guest.
As for PIJ, I’d guess Iran’s rulers will want to build their proxy back better. That will be expensive, but the Biden administration has been offering those rulers hundreds of billions of dollars they can use to support whichever terrorist/jihadi organizations they like. All that’s asked of them in return is a promise to slow-walk their nuclear weapons development program. To believe such a promise would be a fatal mistake.
Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for The Washington Times.