Ideas Have People: The Killing of Zawahiri and the War on Terror

Osama bin Laden sits with his adviser Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri during an interview with Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Hamid Mir (cropped for formatting purposes)

By Matthew Bryant

On July 31, an American drone strike killed Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri, whose death came years after the killing of his associate Osama Bin Laden. The two men were arguably the individuals most responsible for the September 11 attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people. 

These attacks were the genesis of America’s war on terror and inspired much of the United States’ posture in the world to this day. In the month after Zawahiri’s death, numerous articles with headlines such as “Who was Zawahiri” point to the lack of attention toward this man, despite his being so consequential to U.S. foreign policy. 

It ought to have made a more prominent public impact that the United States killed the right-hand man of Osama Bin Laden. The question is, if American media has to explain the importance of Zawahiri’s existence to the public, what effect will his death have on the global war on terror?

Zawahiri’s rise to the leadership of Al-Qaeda alongside Bin Laden was the culmination of decades of political instability across the Arab World, along with a new interpretation of Islam that saw itself not just in a global war against the unbelieving West but the unfaithful, secularized governments of their home countries. 

The man who inspired both Zawahiri and Bin Laden was the Egyptian-born author and revolutionary Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966). Qutb’s writings about his travels to the United States painted a picture of America as a morally bankrupt and decadent empire that would become a common refrain of Islamic fundamentalists.

Qutb’s calls for a more austere and assertive Islam challenged the secular government of Egypt as well as other powers in the Middle East. During his multiple lengthy arrests and tortures at the hands of the Egyptian government, he was made a martyr and a radicalizing figure for young men like Zawahiri. 

Qutb’s example of unwavering commitment to revolutionary ideals and his refusal to compromise with unfaithful “apostate” Muslims were beliefs that Zawahiri and Bin Laden would mirror in their own organizations. 

An early testing ground for the young radicals such as Bin Laden and Zawahiri occurred in the Soviet Union’s Invasion of Afghanistan. This conflict saw Islamic fighters congregate en masse from around the Middle East, which set up Afghanistan to become the testing ground and base of operation for Al-Qaeda operations. 

After resistance fighters drove the Soviets out following ten years of fighting, a new enemy would surface in the form of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait. Saudi-Arabia feared an imminent invasion from Iraq, so Bin Laden offered his own soldiers, seasoned from the Soviet-Afghan war. The Saudis instead opted to invite American troops, which began operating in the region to repel Saddam. To Bin Laden, this was a complete betrayal: non-Believers, not Muslims, would reside permanently in the holy land, fighting for their own interests. 

Soon, Al-Qaeda changed tactics targeting U.S. soldiers in Mogadishu, attacking the USS Cole, and bombing U.S. Embassies in Africa. Throughout the 1990’s Al-Qaeda would become well known for brazen attacks against civilian targets, and these operations eventually escalated to the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on 9/11.

In the aftermath of 9/11, there was overwhelming support for President George W. Bush to prosecute this conflict to the fullest extent he could. A few months into the war, American support for the war sat at around  88 percent, a staggering figure of unified support. 

However, there were dissenters to the planned invasion of Afghanistan. For example, Congressman Ron Paul authored legislation that would have issued “Letters of Marque & Reprisal” to prosecute the war. Specifically, it granted the president the authority “…to seize …  the person and property of Osama bin Laden, and of any conspirator responsible for the air piratical aggressions and depredations perpetrated upon the United States of America on September 11, 2001.”

By treating this attack as an international criminal operation with an end goal of bringing specific individuals to justice for the crime, the American reaction to the September 11 attacks may have been limited in scope far earlier. Nonetheless, his fellow conservatives derided the plan as “kooky,” and the legislation failed

The traumatic events had left most Americans feeling as though a seemingly intangible foreign entity had personally attacked them and stolen a sense of their safety. President George Bush best summed up the majority’s response in speeches delivered in the immediate months after the September 11 attacks. He explained, “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”

Two decades after America launched this war, we now must ask, what was the effect that the death of Ayman Al-Zawahiri had on the global war on terror? The straightforward answer is that it mattered very little. The United States framed the global war on terror in terms of fighting an ideology rather than a specific target. While it is true that America publicly marked Bin Laden and his associates for death for their role in the attacks, the war was on “terror,” not Bin Laden himself. 

The inherent flaws with fighting an ill-defined ideology were clear from the beginning. In a committee hearing to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, the Committee found that an insufficient amount of troops had been allocated in order to cut off Bin Laden’s escape from Afghanistan into Pakistan:

The decision not to deploy American forces to go after bin Laden or block his escape was made by the Secretary of Defense . . . too many U.S. troops in Afghanistan would create an anti-American backlash and fuel a widespread insurgency.

Here at the brink of capturing a man responsible for the attack on 9/11 and there were concerns of a growing insurgency that took precedence over capturing and killing the man responsible for the attacks. This shows that even at the top of the chain, security officials were more concerned about possible insurgency, rather than capturing the fugitive Al-Qaeda members fleeing into the mountains. 

It is impossible to win a war of ideology by killing proponents of said ideology because the rules of the engagement are not limited to the adherents but the idea itself. A war against an ideology is not a war that can be won by definition because it can only end when the warring state destroys every follower of the creed. 

In the case of the anti-Western ideology held by men like Qutb, Zawahiri, and Bin Laden, American drones and bullets were their greatest tool for recruitment. The United States could not hope to win by playing into its enemies’ strategies. 

The war on terror has been beyond the limits of which the deaths of men like Osama Bin Laden or Ayman Al Zawahiri could bring it to an end from the very beginning. It is unlikely that the death of any single person (no matter how deserving) would somehow justify the cost of manpower, treasure, and influence abroad that the United States has lost in the global war on terror.

As Carl Jung put it, “People don’t have ideas, ideas have people.” In a fight against an ideology of terror, there will always be adherents like Zawahiri for violent ideas to inhabit. If we continue to fight a war on the intangible phantom of terrorism, we will never run out of men like Zawahiri to kill.

Matthew Bryant graduated with a BA in Global affairs from George Mason University. He is currently a joint Graduate student at the University of Trento & the Higher School of Economics. His research focuses on ethnic conflict in Ukraine and Post-Soviet area studies. 

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