Editor’s Note: Michael A. Smerconish is host of “Smerconish,” on CNN Saturdays at 9 a.m. ET and of “The Michael Smerconish Program” on SiriusXM Channel 124, Sunday columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and author of “Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own; view more opinion at CNN.
Where the hell is Ayman al-Zawahiri and why don’t we talk about him any more?
Seventeen years ago, in the wake of the devastating attacks of September 11, 2001, there were two names on the tips of American tongues: Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri. The former founded al Qaeda. Together, they oversaw the 9/11 attacks and the 1998 bombings of the US Embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. Bin Laden was, of course, killed by SEAL Team Six in 2011, but in recent years, there’s been nary a mention of his No. 2 who is seemingly alive and well.
Though his communiques don’t get much media coverage, Zawahiri is still disseminating his message. In recent weeks, the al Qaeda media arm released two recordings featuring Zawahiri – a half-hour audio message and five-minute video.
In the video, Zawahiri looks older than we remember him: wearing a white turban, with white shirt, matching his white beard and pasty skin. When the tape begins, there are two books near his folded hands. The backdrop is black and plain.
Zawahiri remains on the FBI’s “Most Wanted Terrorists” list, where his aliases include “The Doctor” and “The Teacher” and the reward is listed as “up to $25 million.” But he is nowhere to be found on Interpol’s most wanted list.
Zawahiri, who trained as a surgeon and is the son of a professor, grew up in a distinguished family in Egypt. He became involved in jihadist activities and was among hundreds imprisoned after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat. He was one of the Mujahedeen who fought against Soviet troops in Afghanistan, as was bin Laden. The two met in 1987.
Zawahiri became the titular head of al Qaeda after bin Laden’s death, but he lacks the former’s charisma and never really filled his shoes.
In his 2012 book, “Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden From 9/11 To Abbottabad,” CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen correctly predicted that “Zawahiri is unlikely to turn things around for al Qaeda. Far from being the inspiring orator that bin Laden was, Zawahiri is more like the pedantic, long-winded uncle who insists on regaling the family at Thanksgiving dinner with accounts of his arcane disputes with obscure enemies.”
Bergen was one of the few Western journalists to interview bin Laden. After bin Laden’s death, Bergen was the only journalist to gain access to the compound where he was killed in Abbottabad. Last week, I asked Bergen for his thoughts as to Zawahiri’s whereabouts. By email, he told me Zawahiri is quite likely hiding in Pakistan, just like his former cohort.
“We never hear about the hunt for him because it’s conducted in secret, but that doesn’t mean that CIA isn’t looking for him,” he said.
While Zawahiri’s exact location isn’t known, “there are pretty good indications, including some of the material found in Abbottabad” that point to the Pakistani port city of Karachi, CIA-veteran Bruce Riedel told Jeff Stein of Newsweek last year. But there are numerous logistical and diplomatic issues that preclude launching an operation similar to SEAL Team Six’s raid against bin Laden in 2011. Several “authoritative sources” also told Newsweek that the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) is continuing to protect Zawahiri and has been since 2001. Pakistan has denied it is hiding Zawahiri.
There have been several unsuccessful assassination attempts made by the US on Zawahiri, as recently as 2016 when the Obama administration initiated a drone attack in Pakistan’s Shawal Valley that did little more than break his glasses, a source told Newsweek. And sadly, there was the 2009 tragedy near Khost, Afghanistan, in which a Jordanian physician duped his handlers into thinking he would deliver Zawahiri before detonating a bomb that killed five CIA officers and two contractors.
Bergen said that the now 67-year-old Zawahiri has been such an ineffective leader that the West might be better served leaving him in place. “Al Qaeda is now grooming [Osama’s son] Hamza bin Laden for a leadership role. Hamza has the family name and is around 30 and would be a much more appealing leader than Zawahiri as al Qaeda positions itself for the post-ISIS world,” he added.
Among the many still wishing for Zawahiri to meet his doom is Rob O’Neill, the US Navy Seal who killed bin Laden.
“My time serving is over but, I assure you, we have people out there who will go to get him,” he said. O’Neill chronicled his career and takedown of bin Laden in his book, “The Operator: Firing the Shots that Killed Osama bin Laden and My Years as a SEAL Team Warrior.”
“Al Qaeda would prefer to stay out of the headlines until they conduct an attack that is successful enough to grab headlines,” he explained. “Until then, they don’t mind the appearance of taking a back seat. They don’t mind seeming to be dwindling because they are in it for the long term. They realize that ISIS is better at making worldwide headlines because of their mastery of social media. ISIS will stab us in the front but al Qaeda wants to stab us in the back.”
To his point, while ISIS has largely dominated headlines since bin Laden’s death, al Qaeda is still a threat. Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told members of the Senate in March that al Qaeda “remains a serious and persistent threat to U.S. interests worldwide,” and in South Asia, “retained the intent and limited capability to threaten coalition and Afghan forces and interests in the region.”
Still, we said we’d never forget. And, as we approach Tuesday’s 17th anniversary of 9/11, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Zawahiri remains at large.