TURES COLUMN: Will killing Al-Zawahiri make him a footnote or a martyr?

Published 11:30 am Tuesday, August 9, 2022

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A drone strike took out Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, accused of being one of the leaders behind 9/11, in Afghanistan. The first question most have is whether such attacks make us safer or not. A top-notch LaGrange College student’s paper for a national undergraduate research conference provides some answers. It was October of 2019. ISIS Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in a U.S. military action.  The next day, my students and I analyzed 12 cases of raids or attacks against terrorists, as well as rescue attempts of hostages or the capture of enemy leaders.

We found that 75% of the time, a President’s approval ratings increase, though in 83% of the time, that leader’s polls decline over the next several months, which shows Biden’s boost in the polls may only be temporary. Al-Zawahiri’s presence in Afghanistan further reveals an additional failure of the Doha Agreement of February 29, 2020, which paved the way for the Taliban to return to power. Their ties to al-Qaeda remain strong, regardless of what they promised back in 2020. One of my students went a step further in our class. He tested whether the killing of terrorists made them disappear from the headlines, or become a martyr to emulate. Here is what he found.

“One of the main arguments against targeted killings of terrorist leaders is the idea that killing terrorist leaders creates martyrs that end up actually creating more terror,” Parrish began.

“For my Special Topics course on Terrorism taught by Dr. Tures, I looked to measure the potential impact that Anwar al-Awlaki had on terrorism in the West. Linked with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Fort Hood Shooting, and the underwear bomber, Awlaki became the first American to be targeted by a drone strike and the first American to be killed by the United States government on orders from a president without due process since the Civil War. But did the killing of Awlaki really make an impact on his ability to influence terror?”Jaydon continues.

“To look at this, I collected data on 167 Jihadi linked terrorist attacks since the cleric first began speaking out against the West. In this data, I found that Awlaki played at least some role in inspiring 52 or about ⅓ of all cases between 2005 and 2021. Awlaki’s impact was greatest in the US and UK where he was influential in around 45% of UK terrorist attacks and about 59% of US based attacks.”

He also went on to find that even in death, the former cleric was able to inspire a sizable number of terror attacks in America and Britain even after his death.

“Despite the US going to great lengths to track and kill Awlaki, the New Mexico born extremist was able to inspire major terrorist events like the Boston Marathon Bombing, 2015 Paris Attack, and the Manchester Arena Bombing,” even after his death, Parrish notes. “The presence of Awlaki’s lectures online have become common in inspiring acts of terror on the West. From an organizational standpoint, the death of al-Zawahiri is sure to be a blow to al-Qaeda, but it may not necessarily be as effective at stopping acts of terrorism.” This shows that the U.S. needs a greater strategy for battling terrorists after their deaths. Even after their demise, they can inspire others to ruthlessly attack in their name; perhaps the new killer can use the slain terrorist’s elimination as justification for their acts.

Showing evidence of the ruthless killings the terrorist was responsible for in life, as well as how such attacks on innocents violates the very religion they claim to represent should also be adopted.

It’s clear from Parrish’s research that some terror leaders can be as deadly after their life has ended.

NOTE: LaGrange College student Jaydon Parrish contributed to this article