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Projecting Strength Abroad Isn’t Simply About Killing Terrorists. It’s About Standing Up to Despots, Too.

Ayman Al Zawahiri was a craven terrorist, but projecting strength should also mean standing up to autocrats. Biden can start by securing the release of U.S. citizen Asim Ghafoor, who was detained in UAE.

Biden announcing death of al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri in Afghanistan
Jim Watson-Pool/Getty Images
Biden announced on August 1 that U.S. forces had killed Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri in Afghanistan.

Ayman Al Zawahiri, terrorist and Al Qaeda mastermind, was killed in a targeted U.S. air strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Monday. He died with the blood of innocent civilians on his hands.

President Biden is using the strike to bolster his approval here at home. It is troubling to watch yet another American president flog “War on Terror” themes to resurrect a laggard term. That said, Biden’s approval numbers began to slip toward their current historic lows after the botched pullout from Afghanistan, where Al Zawahiri was killed. The shambolic, if courageous, pullout left open questions about whether the U.S. had even accomplished the aims it had set out to achieve after 9/11. This strike, then, offers the Biden administration a fig leaf, demonstrating that even in Taliban hands, Afghanistan is not off-limits for direct action against terrorist targets.

It’s clear that Biden saw it that way, too. Consider his address to the nation directly afterwards.

My administration will continue to vigilantly monitor and address threats from Al Qaeda, no matter where they emanate from.

As commander-in-chief, it is my solemn responsibility to make America safe in a dangerous world. The United States did not seek this war against terror. It came to us, and we answered with the same principles and resolve that have shaped us for generation upon generation: to protect the innocent, defend liberty, and keep the light of freedom burning—a beacon for the rest of the entire world.

Because this is the great and defining truth about our nation and our people: We do not break. We never give in. We never back down.

Biden is counting on this latest mission to project strength as Democrats head into the midterms. But if Biden is serious about projecting strength in the Middle East, taking out terrorists isn’t enough. He also needs to stand up to the dictators and despots who fuel them.

Just weeks ago, the president returned from a jaunt in the Middle East that saw him dapping Saudi’s Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, who ordered the brutal murder and dismemberment of The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. But Biden wasn’t the only American in the region in hot water. Asim Ghafoor, an American citizen and lawyer, was detained in the Dubai airport in the United Arab Emirates on July 16 while on a layover from a family wedding abroad. Ghafoor had been tried and convicted in absentia in the UAE and sentenced to a three-year jail term and $800,000 over seemingly trumped-up charges of “money laundering” and “tax evasion.” But perhaps Ghafoor’s real crime was that he has worked with Khashoggi and is a board member of Democracy for the Arab World Now, a nonprofit organization that promotes democracy and was founded by Khashoggi.* Beyond just murdering and dismembering the journalist in a Turkish consulate, allies of MBS now want to send a message to his allies. Shut up—or else.

It seems Biden heard the message, too. He met with the UAE’s president just two days later. The fact that Biden has yet to mention Ghafoor’s name in public demonstrates a profound weakness. It’s not just Ghafoor whom Biden has been silent about. Prisons in U.S.-backed dictatorships like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt are filled with prisoners whose only crimes are that they’ve chosen to speak up about human rights abuses.

Our leaders don’t just ignore those jails—they direct our hard-earned taxpayer dollars to actively support them! Indeed, the United States has backstopped military dictatorships in the region for decades, dictatorships that sustain a vast network of prisons designed to silence human rights organizations, journalists, or critics.… even when they’re Americans. Those jails and prisons become hotbeds for terrorist recruitment. Ayman Al Zawahiri himself was radicalized in an Egyptian prison.

If Biden is serious about projecting strength abroad, he needs a new playbook. The War on Terror themes he struck—extrajudicial executions of foreign terrorists—while justifiable, have gotten stale. If he’s serious about addressing the root causes of terrorism, he needs to demonstrate now the same bold leadership he showed when he pulled us out of Afghanistan in the first place. Rather than dapping dictators U.S. presidents have backstopped for far too long, it means confronting them.

And that starts with demanding the immediate release of Asim Ghafoor. A husband and father of three, Ghafoor was recently taken to the emergency room for complications of Covid-19, which he contracted in his Emirati prison. That the United States should allow a foreign government to treat an American political prisoner this way is pathetic.

The brutal irony of this moment is that the struggle for democracy is no longer a distant, far away concept. Indeed, we’re locked in a struggle for our own democracy here at home. Because while U.S. citizen Asim Ghafoor, who has worked with the late U.S. resident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi, was being detained next door to where U.S. President Biden was meeting with the dictator who ordered the assassination of Ghafoor’s former client, the United States itself was watching the results of an investigation into a homegrown insurrection against Biden’s own election.

It turns out that a threat to democracy anywhere is a threat to democracy everywhere.

* This article has been updated to more accurately reflect the relationship between Ghafoor and Khashoggi.