An 11-year hunt for one of the world’s most wanted men is over. Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of al-Qaeda, was killed in a US drone strike in Kabul, President Biden confirmed overnight, adding: “Justice has been delivered and this terrorist leader is no more.”

Egypt-born Zawahiri helped to found the Islamic terrorist organisation and to coordinate the 9/11 attacks, before taking over from former leader Osama bin Laden in 2011. 

The 71-year-old was killed on Sunday in the Afghan capital by a CIA-operated Air Force drone as he stood on the balcony of his house. Biden gave the final approval for the attack. Zawahiri was tracked down through his family, who had relocated to a safe house in Kabul. The al-Qaeda leader was later identified at the location and is thought to have been the only one killed in the strike.

His presence in Kabul has intensified scrutiny over the relationship between the Taliban and terrorist organisations.

In February 2020, the Taliban, which once provided shelter for Bin Laden, pledged to the US to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for global terror attacks. Yet the UN reported last month that al-Qaeda had “increased freedom of action” in Afghanistan under the Taliban.

It’s not immediately clear who will succeed Zawahiri. But any future leader of the terrorist group will benefit from the decline of ISIS, which is far weaker now that it has lost the caliphate.

In any case, the assassination is a major success of US counter-terrorism efforts, and a useful deflection for Biden’s administration as we approach a grim anniversary. Almost a year has passed since the shambolic withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan, returning the country to Taliban control after 20 years of war. 

Biden is touting the strike as evidence that complex counter-terrorism operations can succeed without a permanent US base in Afghanistan: “We can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground.” 

But for the 38 million Afghans left in the country, this is much less relevant. While the global news cycle has moved on, the chaos left in the wake of the withdrawal is far from over. 

Afghanistan is experiencing record levels of food insecurity, with almost half the population – 19.7 million people – facing potentially life-threatening hunger, according to humanitarian organisations. 

Afghanistan is a country heavily dependent on foreign aid. Yet the US and its allies have cut off billions of dollars in development funds since the Taliban rose to power, sending the already shattered economy into free fall.

It’s possible that the Zawahiri strike resulted from US-Taliban intel sharing. Some are speculating that the Taliban may have chosen to cooperate with the US in a bid to ease biting US sanctions. 

Others believe any foreign assistance with the drone strike is more likely to have been provided by the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, which has decent visibility into what’s happening on the ground  in Kabul. Senior Pakistani security officials are denying this, though they would likely want to keep any involvement quiet for fear of militant backlash.

But if the Taliban end up shouldering the blame for giving Zawahiri sanctuary, it will only hamper efforts to secure desperately needed aid.