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Thursday, August 11, 2022

OPINION:

The successful counterterrorism strike that killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri removed from the battlefield a dangerous terrorist who declared war on the U.S. decades ago. For that, we can all be grateful.

But serious questions remain about the extent to which al Qaeda enjoys the same sort of safe haven in Afghanistan that it used to plot and plan attacks against the U.S. during the previous Taliban regime. We don’t know who will replace al-Zawahiri or whether his death preempted any imminent threats to U.S. national security. The more likely scenario is that the growing number of al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan will carry on with their attack planning despite their leader’s demise. 


As expected, the Taliban never adhered to the February 2020 Doha agreement with the Trump administration, which called for them to sever all ties to al Qaeda and not to allow terror groups to use the country again as a staging ground for attacks abroad. 

In spite of this successful strike, the first in Afghanistan in almost a year, we are still in the crosshairs of al Qaeda and ISIS, both of which homestead in Afghanistan’s ungoverned space. Al Qaeda continues to benefit from a close historical relationship and tactical support from the notorious Haqqani Network, whose leader Sirajuddin Haqqani is the Taliban’s acting minister of interior.

We can be sure the U.S. intelligence community and its Department of Defense partners were already focused on the next counterterrorism mission even before the Taliban finished cleaning up the debris in the downtown apartment where al-Zawahiri was living and escorting al-Zawahiri’s family from the scene. That’s the nature of the seemingly never-ending mission to find, fix and finish off the terrorists who seek to do us harm. It will continue as long as Afghanistan remains a failed state and a petri dish for nurturing threats to the region and beyond.

But there should be a well-deserved measure of satisfaction among our counterterrorism professionals over the removal of such a high-value target, an operation that reportedly took months to plan. There was a profound sense of closure resulting from those Hellfire missile strikes in downtown Kabul, which — in stark contrast to al Qaeda‘s barbarity — resulted in no civilian casualties.

Al-Zawahiri, whose last public act was an April 2022 video commemorating the heinous Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, made it his mission to mount terrorist attacks against the U.S. “far enemy,” going back to the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa. 

The sense of closure must be especially poignant for the CIA and its generations of officers who have taken the fight to al Qaeda. It’s worth recalling that CIA officers deployed to Afghanistan within weeks of the 9/11 attacks to hunt for Osama bin Laden and his then-deputy al-Zawahiri. 

On Dec. 30, 2009, Jennifer Matthews, chief of Base Khost at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Afghanistan, and her colleagues Scott Roberson, Darren LaBonte, Elizabeth Hanson, Harold Brown, Dane Paresi and Jeremy Wise were killed during a meeting with Humam al-Balawi, a jihadist website writer, whom Jordanian Intelligence (GID) had recruited as a source. The GID officer who was al-Balawi’s handler was also killed in the suicide attack.

Matthews and her team took the risk of making the meeting with al-Balawi in person because they assessed he had access to sensitive information on al-Zawahiri, including his location. They embodied the CIA ethos of deploying overseas in harm’s way to detect and prevent threats from being visited on our shores. And they were killed in the single most lethal attack on CIA since the 1983 Beirut Embassy bombing. 

Al Qaeda and the Tehrik-i-Taliban, the Pakistani branch of the Taliban, claimed responsibility for turning al-Balawi into a treacherous triple agent.

One of the CIA officers, who joined me for a two-year assignment in South Asia where I served as station chief, had the honor of serving with Matthews in Khost. He was an exceptional counterterrorism expert, who tirelessly drove the mission to hunt for al Qaeda terrorists.  

For him, the mission to hold al-Zawahiri accountable was highly personal. Matthews and her team were his comrades, role models for him and countless others. Their legacy was a reminder of our sacred responsibility to serve the counterterrorism mission in unaccompanied war zones, to care for our people, and respect their sacrifices and those of their families. 

Matthews and her band of fallen officers inspired their CIA colleagues with their selfless determination and steely focus on keeping our nation safe, even when it meant exposing themselves to peril. The CIA officers, who followed in their footsteps, should take pride in honoring their memory by completing their sacred mission.

• Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018. 


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