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The reaction in the Middle East to Zawahiri's death and the outlook for al-Qaida

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al-Qaida leader the U.S. killed in a drone strike this week, was believed to be living and operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan for the last 20 years, but he cast a long shadow over the Middle East. That's even as his international jihadist movement was eclipsed by groups like ISIS that were capturing territory on the ground. We're going to take a look at some of the reaction today and the outlook for al-Qaida. And to do that, we're going to bring in NPR's Fatma Tanis, who joins us from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Hi, Fatma.

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK. So I know that you've been tracking how people in the Middle East have been reacting to this news. Can you just give us a brief snapshot of what you've been seeing so far?

TANIS: Sure. So the Saudis were the ones to really lead the official response. They issued a quick statement after President Biden's speech, praising and welcoming the operation that killed Zawahiri, and they said, quote, "thousands of innocent people of different nationalities and religions, including Saudi citizens, were killed" by the terrorist group under his leadership. Of course, the shadow of 9/11 continues to hang over Saudi Arabia because of al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden's Saudi roots. And also, 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals. Zawahiri, as we know, was involved in the planning of 9/11. However, he is from Egypt. And so far, that country has been completely silent on this news.

CHANG: What about the response to specifically how Zawahiri was killed? I mean, we're talking about a U.S. drone strike in the heart of Kabul, right?

TANIS: Yeah. So this is interesting because, you know, mainstream political commentators and social media influencers with hundreds of thousands of followers took on a more critical view. And you can see this across the region, from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait. People are condemning the U.S. usage of drones that they say is a violation of other countries' sovereignty. They say it often leads to the death of civilians - though not in this case, it seems - and they raised questions about the timing of the operation. One Saudi columnist who writes for local newspapers, Abdullah Bandar (ph), said Biden, quote, "offered Zawahiri to the American people in order to distract from his other failures." Others pointed out that Zawahiri's presence in Afghanistan was the fault of the U.S. withdrawal last year. So there was a general sense of resentment about American activity overseas being driven by internal politics.

CHANG: Well, let me ask you, Fatma - we know that al-Qaida had been active in Afghanistan, but how active have al-Qaida and Zawahiri in countries further away been - like in Iraq or Syria or Saudi Arabia?

TANIS: Not much. You know, in recent years, they were really overshadowed by other groups, like ISIS and al-Nusra Front, a group that split from al-Qaida. Those groups actually captured ground and governed areas in former al-Qaida strongholds, like Iraq and Syria, whereas al-Qaida was more focused on international operations. And until recently, Zawahiri called for attacks in places like Saudi Arabia. He was in contact with different al-Qaida offshoots in Iraq and Yemen, but it didn't really seem like he controlled them. So in general, the group struggled with radicalizing and attracting younger groups. And Zawahiri, in particular, was really not taken seriously by the other terrorist organizations, even when he threatened them.

CHANG: Interesting. So where do we think al-Qaida could be headed at this point without Zawahiri at the helm?

TANIS: There's a lot of speculation about who will succeed Zawahiri. There doesn't seem to be a clear line of succession, unlike when ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died in 2019. But terrorism experts and officials seem to agree on one thing - we are unlikely to see a revival of al-Qaida, even under a new leader.

CHANG: That is NPR's Fatma Tanis in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Thank you, Fatma.

TANIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.