With the Taliban all set to take formal control of Afghanistan, many including US and UK defence officials, are worried about a possible resurgence of Al Qaeda and other militant groups.
While US intelligence officials put Al Qaeda’s strength at an estimated 200 to 300 members in Afghanistan, the Taliban takeover could leave intelligence agencies flying blind when it comes to the terror group.
Al Qaeda, at present, is headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri. As per US-based monitor SITE Intelligence Group, al-Zawahiri in 2016, pledged support to Taliban supreme leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada – who was appointed leader after a US drone strike killed his predecessor Mullah Mansour Akhtar – calling him "the emir of the faithful" and showering him with praise.
But just who is the man that succeeded Osama bin Laden?
Here’s a brief look at his profile:
Who is Ayman al-Zawahiri? Born on 19 June, 1951 in Egypt, Ayman al-Zawahiri is a physician who speaks Arabic and French. He founded the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), which merged with Al Qaeda in 1998. The US state department has offered a $25 million reward for information leading to his capture or conviction. For good reason.
He has been indicted for his role in the 7 August, 1998, bombings of the United States Embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya and is also believed to have participated in the planning of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York.
Daniel L Byman, writing in Brookings in November 2020, said al-Zawahiri has been praised as a “mastermind” and criticized as a leader. He has preserved ties to its long-standing ally, the Afghan Taliban, despite pressure on the group to disavow Al-Qaeda as part of peace negotiations, Bryan further wrote.
When did he take over? He became Al Qaeda chief after the killing of Osama bin Laden by US Navy SEALS in 2011. After Osama bin Laden’s son Hamza, who was viewed as a possible heir to the outfit was killed in a military operation, al-Zawahiri lauded Hamza in 2015 as a “lion from the den of Al-Qaeda.”
What are his views? In 2018, al-Zawahiri released a video slamming “backtrackers” referring to former jihadis who changed their views in prison and called the 9/11 attacks unacceptable because innocent civilians were harmed.
“If you want jihad to be focused solely on military targets, the American military has presence all over the world, from the East to the West,” he said. “Your countries are littered with American bases, with all the infidels therein and the corruption they spread.”
Worryingly for China, which has already made overtures to the Taliban, al-Zawahiri has offered support for the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, an Uyghur extremist organization that seeks to establish an independent State of ‘East Turkestan’.
Where is he? He is believed to be hiding somewhere in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border regions along with a significant part of the Al-Qaeda leadership. The Al-Qaeda chief is “probably alive but too frail to be featured in propaganda,” according to a United Nations report.
Previous reports of his death due to ill health have not been confirmed.
With inputs from agencies