Despite being hunted by the US government since the 1990s, the chief of al-Qaida Ayman al-Zawahiri remains at large. The US government offers a massive reward for information on his whereabouts: $25 million — the highest for any terrorist in the world. In 2017, then CIA Director and later Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on being asked about the US hunt for Zawahiri among other al-Qaida leaders, declared: “If I were them, I’d count my days.”
Yet he hasn’t been caught and, by all indications, is alive.
Some suggest Zawahiri’s targeting may not be a real priority for the US anymore. This view is a derivative of arguments on Zawahiri’s ineffectiveness as the chief of al-Qaida. Many perceive him as a “pedantic uncle”, who rambles on in his speeches and lacks the charisma of his predecessor to inspire a global movement. Per one claim, even President Trump doesn’t care much for his capture or killing, instead preferring the targeting of Bin Laden’s son Hamza for his “celebrity” status. My view is different. I believe that after some poor years at the helm, Zawahiri has shown better political instincts than his peer jihadist leaders, which have enabled al-Qaida’s recovery from damage due to drone strikes and relative political consolidation after the emergence of ISIS. And if he is targeted, it will trigger a complicated succession process in al-Qaida, which might lead to splintering.
So where is he?
Back in 2017, Jeff Stein, who covers intelligence issues for Newsweek, did an important investigative piece on Zawahiri. Drawing on a variety of anonymous sources and authors of the terrific book The Exile, Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott Clark, Stein argued that Zawahiri was in Pakistan. He quoted an OSINT analyst saying that as per “a European intelligence source” Zawahiri also remained in the garrison city of Rawalpindi. He went on to claim that in the first week of January 2016, the Obama administration targetted Zawahiri in a drone strike in Pakistan’s North Waziristan region, specifically in the Shawal valley straddling the border with Afghanistan, which he narrowly missed. Following the strike, Stein wrote, Zawahiri moved to the port city of Karachi and according to “several authoritative sources” he was in the protection of Pakistani intelligence. I am open to this suggestion but the sourcing wasn’t transparent enough, for understandable reasons, to make a firm judgment.
Parts of Stein’s 2017 reporting appear to have held up but his claim about Zawahiri being in Karachi — or mainland Pakistan — was diluted by the reporting of the UN sanctions committee over the next few years, which carried important observations on Zawahiri’s location. In February 2018, the committee reported: “Al-Zawahiri is still assumed to be in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.” In July 2018, it said: “Some members of the Al-Qaida core, including Aiman al-Zawahiri and Hamza bin Laden, are reported to be in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas.”
The UN’s May 2020 report went a step further. In the backdrop of speculation that Zawahiri might be dead due to poor health, the UN reported that “Zawahiri met with members of the Haqqani Network in February 2020.” It added that he consulted Aziz Haqqani and Yahya Haqqani, two senior leaders of the Haqqani Network, “over the agreement with the United States and the peace process.” Given the reporting of continued support and haven for the Haqqani Network in Pakistan, the two can plausibly be in Pakistan. That raises the question: Did Zawahiri go to Pakistan to meet them? Or did they go meet him wherever he was at? Or they met at a third location?
Some weeks after the UN’s report, the CENTCOM chief General Kenneth F. McKenzie weighed in on Zawahiri’s location. In video remarks to the Middle East Institute, McKenzie stated that Zawahiri was in eastern Afghanistan. Over the last few years, I have tried to track pronouncements of Zawahiri’s status and location by senior US officials. Unless I am missing something, McKenzie is the senior-most US official to make a claim about Zawahiri’s status or location in a while.
Recently, in line with McKenzie’s claim, I heard from a source in the Birmal district of Afghanistan’s eastern Paktika province, which is on the border with Pakistan, that some planes had dropped leaflets in Urdu and Pashto seeking information on Zawahiri with promise for a reward. The source shared photos of an Urdu leaflet, which are below. The one which reached me doesn’t mention any dollar amount as a reward (like $25 million pledged by rewards for justice!) but provides phone numbers and an email address to send information on. I am assuming the US government dropped the leaflets but there is no (easy) way for me to verify.
The leaflets seeking information on Zawahiri in Birmal and McKenzie’s claim are plausible. For years, I have heard of the presence of al-Qaida leadership/rank-and-file in Birmal alongside cadres of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in territories controlled by the shadow government of the Afghan Taliban. Since 2007, the TTP has been a reliable paramilitary for al-Qaida in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. At one point, I heard that Hamza was in the protection of the TTP in Laman/Margha areas of Birmal, where the US targetted him in December 2017. (More recently, I have seen speculation that Hamza was killed in FATA’s Kurram agency but no journalist has dug into the claim.) The one small mystery is: Why drop leaflets in Urdu, not just Pashto? One explanation can be that it is an attempt to reach out to some in the Pakistani contingent of al-Qaida/TTP and the refugees from Waziristan in Birmal, who are more proficient at reading Urdu? I am not sure.
Two final points. One, it is interesting that after many years into the war in Afghanistan, the US government is trying to collect intelligence on Zawahiri through leaflets dropped off airplanes in an area where its partner, the Afghan security force, has limited territorial control, at least according to the US government’s last available reporting and the Long War Journal. This is a minor but important point for military and off-shore CT warfare doctrine. It goes against some priors of population-centric counterinsurgency doctrine and the scholarship on civil war. They suggest that security provision or credible threat of punishment, ideally through a strong presence in the local territory, is key for obtaining civilian collaboration.
Tangential but given my ongoing research, I am interested in knowing how many strikes against high-value al-Qaida leaders have resulted from tips by civilians responding to aerial leaflet drops. For what it is worth, in my work on US CT operations, I have found some evidence suggesting that civilians, despite promises of rewards, are not a particularly useful source of information. Instead, technology and insiders are the US’s preferred sources of intelligence. I am happy to update this view with better data.
Second, while it makes sense that the US is desperate to capture Zawahiri due to the agreement with the Taliban and impending force withdrawal from Afghanistan, why is a senior military official like McKenzie talking about his location publicly? Critics of “forever wars” might say that this is part of a broader effort by senior generals to corner an administration committed to withdrawing from Afghanistan.
Also, how would the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network react if Zawahiri is captured, say from Birmal, before the withdrawal from Afghanistan? What if he is captured while under the protection of the Afghan Taliban? How would the Trump administration react?