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The U.S. military has eliminated the leader of al-Qaeda, but at what cost?

After more than two decades, the War on Terror still has not faded from America’s agenda. 

On Jul. 31, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the latest leader of the Islamic extremist terrorist organization al-Qaeda, was assassinated by a targeted U.S. drone strike. Al-Zawahiri was said to be the right-hand man of al-Qaeda’s founder and former emir Osama bin Laden, the man responsible for the 9/11 attacks resulting in nearly 3,000 deaths. What proceeded and still continues today is collectively known as the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), an American-led global counterterrorism campaign created in retaliation to the 9/11 attacks. In the following years, the War on Terror would lead to an accumulative 900,000 deaths, over 300,000 of which were civilians. 

Ayman al-Zawahiri’s death portrays a striking hypocrisy between Americans’ disdain for terrorism and the invasive tactics the U.S. uses in the War on Terror. While the 9/11 tragedy has greatly impacted the U.S., the assassinations of terrorists are also used to justify the loss of civilian lives from the War on Terror. 

Around the time of Zawahiri’s death, al-Qaeda was barely active and largely dismantled. 

The Foreign Policy Research Intitute even states, “While Zawahiri’s influence within the global jihadist movement had diminished in recent years, his assassination by the United States represents a symbolic victory in the fight against Al Qaeda.”

The U.S. government continues to justify countless deaths in the name of  counterterrorism, but it is not enough of an excuse to claim that Zawahiri’s death is a significant milestone. A new leader of al-Qaeda can succeed Zawahiri to lead the organization, but tirelessly pursuing every figurehead occurs at the cost of many civilian casualties. It is unjustifiable to present Zawahiri as the golden prize of so many sacrifices throughout the War on Terror. 

Non-profit company Airwars reported, “We found that the US has declared at least 91,340 strikes across seven major conflict zones. Our research has concluded that at least 22,679, and potentially as many as 48,308 civilians, have been likely killed by US strikes.” 

The U.S. constantly brings up the 9/11 tragedy and its emotional toll on Americans to reinforce patriotism, but the U.S. military is not the only victim of terrorist attacks. Overseas, the U.S. inflicts thousands and thousands of drone strikes on countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. And sometimes, the military can declare a terrorist’s death as the golden prize. 

While assassinating Zawahiri may have delivered  an effective message—“Look at us stopping terrorists and avenging 9/11 deaths!”—for the U.S., the death toll for civilian casualties still climbs into the hundreds of thousands. The American public might be glad to see justice brought to terrorists, but no one talks about the innocent people who get caught in the U.S. military’s crossfire. 

During Aug. 2021 in Afghanistan, the U.S. military mistakenly presumed that an ISIS-K member was driving a white Toyota sedan. In reality, the driver was aid worker Zemari Ahmadi. 10 people were mistakenly killed by the drone strike. Who knows how many other times the U.S. has accidentally killed civilians under the guise of going after terrorists?

But Americans do not only kill civilians abroad. The current crisis facing many families with children is indicative of that. 

In a briefing on the counterterrorism operation against Zawahiri, Biden stated, “He made videos, including in recent weeks, calling for his followers to attack the United States and our allies.”

When Americans bring up the topic of Islamic extremist terrorist groups, domestic concerns are often cast off to the side. Six terrorist attacks have occurred since the beginning of the Trump administration, while 35 school shootings have been attempted in 2022 alone. When Americans leave their house, it is not a suicide bomber from a terrorist organization they are afraid of. When people drop off their kids at school, parents and students alike fear errant school shooters on the rampage. 

The War on Terror did not slow after the Bush and Obama administrations. This became apparent when President Donald J. Trump, known to promote Islamophobic narratives and policies, took to office. In fact, Trump has tried to intiate several executive orders restricting immigration from Muslim-majority countries.

In the first two years of the Trump administration, a whopping 2,243 drone strikes were unleashed. On the contrary, Obama issued 1,878 in all eight years of his presidency. 9/11 and terrorism is embedded into American patriotism as much as any other issue. Thus, it is easy for the government to appeal to pathos to justify any militant actions, even with innocent people in the way. 

Yes, the U.S. military has put an end to al-Qaeda leader Zawahiri, but for what? The terrorist organization could choose a new emir, and drone strikes aimed at terrorists continue to kill civilians. At what point does it all stop? 

Fight fire with fire, and fight terrorism with more terrorism—but this approach can only continue for so long before the public sees the consequences outside what is perpetuated in media.

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