WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden announced Monday that al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri was killed in a US drone strike in Kabul, an operation he says has brought justice and hopefully “another lockdown measure” to families of the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
The president said in an evening address from the White House that US intelligence officials followed al-Zawahri to a house in central Kabul where he was hiding with his family. The president approved the operation last week and it was performed on Sunday.
al-Zawahric and the more famous Osama bin Laden plotted the 9/11 attacks that brought many ordinary Americans their first knowledge of Al-Qaeda. Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan on May 2, 2011 during an operation conducted by US Navy SEALs after a nearly ten-year hunt.
As for al-Zawahri, Biden said: “He will never, ever again allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven for terrorists because he is gone and we are going to make sure nothing else happens.”
“This terrorist leader is no more,” he added.
The operation is a major victory for the Biden administration, just 11 months after US troops left the country after a two-decade war.
The strike was carried out by the CIA, according to five people familiar with the case who spoke on condition of anonymity. Neither Biden nor the White House detailed the CIA’s involvement in the attack.
Biden, however, paid tribute to the US intelligence community in his comments, noting that “thanks to their extraordinary perseverance and skill” the operation was a success.
Al-Zawahri’s death eliminates the figure who more than anyone else has shaped al-Qaeda, first as bin Laden’s deputy since 1998, then as his successor. Together, he and bin Laden turned the weapons of the jihadist movement at the United States and carried out the deadliest attack ever on American soil: the September 11 suicide hijackings.
The house where Al-Zawahri was located when he was killed belonged to a top aide to senior Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, according to a senior intelligence official. The official also added that a CIA ground team and aerial reconnaissance conducted after the drone strike confirmed al-Zawahri’s death.
A senior government official who briefed reporters on the operation on condition of anonymity said there were “zero” US personnel in Kabul.
During the 20-year war in Afghanistan, the US targeted and splintered al-Qaida, forcing leaders to go into hiding. But America’s departure from Afghanistan last September gave the extremist group a chance to rebuild.
US military officials, including General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have said al-Qaida was trying to recover in Afghanistan, where it faced limited threats from the now-ruling Taliban. Military leaders have warned that the group still seeks to attack the US
After his assassination, the White House underlined that al-Zawahri had remained a dangerous figure. The senior government official said al-Zawahri had continued to provide “strategic direction”, including pushing for attacks on the US while in hiding. He had also prioritized members of the terror network that the United States remains the “primary enemy” of al-Qaeda, the official said.
The 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon made bin Laden America’s No. 1 enemy. But he probably never could have carried it out without his deputy. Bin Laden provided charisma and money to al-Qaeda, but al-Zawahri brought the tactics and organizational skills needed to forge militants into a network of cells in countries around the world.
US intelligence agencies have known for years about a network that helps al-Zawahri evade US intelligence agencies hunting him, but he only had a corral at his possible location in recent months.
Earlier this year, US officials learned that the terror leader’s wife, daughter and her children had moved to a hiding place in Kabul, according to the senior government official who informed reporters.
Officials eventually found out that al-Zawahri was also at the Kabul hiding place.
In early April, Jon Finer, the White House’s deputy national security adviser, and Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, Biden’s homeland security adviser, were briefed on this evolving intelligence. The information was soon turned over to National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.
Sullivan brought the information to Biden as U.S. intelligence officials “built a pattern of living through multiple independent sources of information to inform the operation,” the official said.
According to the official, senior Taliban figures were aware of al-Zawahri’s presence in Kabul.
Within the Biden administration, only a small group of key agency officials, as well as Vice President Kamala Harris, were involved in the process. In May and June, Biden was briefed several times on the growing body of intelligence confirming that al-Zawahri was hiding in the house. In recent weeks, Biden has brought together several cabinet officials and key national security officials to investigate the intelligence community’s findings.
On July 1, Biden was briefed in the Situation Room about the planned operation, a briefing in which the president scrutinized a scale model of the house Zawahri was hiding in. He gave his final approval for the operation on Thursday. Al-Zawahri was on the balcony of his hideout on Sunday when two Hellfire missiles were launched from an unmanned drone, killing him.
Al-Zawahri’s family was in another part of the house when the operation was performed, and it was believed no one else was killed in the operation, the official said.
“We’re making it clear again tonight: however long it takes, wherever you hide, if you pose a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out,” Biden said.
Al-Zawahri was hardly a household name like bin Laden, but he played a huge role in the terror group’s operations.
The bond of the two terror leaders was forged in the late 1980s, when al-Zawahri reportedly treated Saudi millionaire Bin Laden in the caves of Afghanistan as Soviet bombing shook the mountains around them.
Al-Zawahri, on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists List, had a $25 million bounty on his head for any information that could be used to kill or capture him.
Al-Zawhiri and Bin Laden engineered the 9/11 attacks that introduced many ordinary Americans to al-Qaeda for the first time.
Photographs from the time often showed the bespectacled, mild-mannered Egyptian doctor sitting next to bin Laden. Al-Zawahiri had merged his group of Egyptian militants with bin Laden’s al-Qaida in the 1990s.
“The strong contingent of Egyptians applied organizational know-how, financial expertise and military experience to wage a violent jihad against leaders who viewed the fighters as un-Islamic and their patrons, especially the United States,” wrote Steven A. Cook for the Council on Foreign Relations last year.
When the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 destroyed al-Qaeda’s safe haven, scattering, killing and imprisoning its members, al-Zawahri ensured the survival of al-Qaeda. He rebuilt his leadership in the Afghan-Pakistan border region and installed allies as lieutenants in key positions.
He also transformed the organization from a centralized terror attack planner to the head of a franchise chain. He led the build-up of a network of autonomous branches in the region, including in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, North Africa, Somalia, Yemen and Asia. Over the next decade, al-Qaida inspired or directly affected attacks in all those areas, as well as in Europe, Pakistan and Turkey, including the Madrid train bombings in 2004 and the London transit bombings in 2005.
More recently, the al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen proved it was capable of plotting attacks on US soil with an attempted bombing of a US passenger plane in 2009 and an attempted parcel bomb the following year.
But even before bin Laden’s death, al-Zawahri struggled to maintain al-Qaida’s relevance in a changing Middle East.
He tried with little success to co-opt the wave of uprisings that spread across the Arab world from 2011, urging Islamist hardliners to take over in the countries where leaders had fallen. But while Islamists have gained notoriety in many places, they have major ideological differences with al-Qaeda and reject its agenda and leadership.
Still, al-Zawahri tried to pose as the leader of the Arab Spring. America “stands against an Islamic nation that is in revolt and has risen from its lethargy to a renaissance of jihad,” he said in a video eulogy to bin Laden, dressed in a white robe and turban with an assault rifle mounted on a white background. wall behind him. .
Al-Zawahri was also a more divisive figure than his predecessor. Many militants described the mild-mannered bin Laden in adoring and almost spiritual terms.
By contrast, al-Zawahri was notoriously prickly and pedantic. He conducted ideological battles with critics in the jihadist camp and wagged his finger in his videos. Even some key figures in Al-Qaeda’s central leadership were deterred, calling him overly controlling, secretive and divisive.
Some militants whose association with bin Laden predates al-Zawahri’s have always viewed him as an arrogant invader.
“I never took orders from al-Zawahri,” sneered Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, one of the network’s top figures in East Africa until his death in 2011, in a memoir posted online in 2009. our historic leadership.”
There had been rumors of al-Zawahri’s death for years. But in April, a video surfaced of the al-Qaeda leader praising an Indian Muslim woman who had defied a ban on wearing a hijab or headscarf. Those images were the first evidence in months that he was still alive.
A statement from the Afghan Taliban government confirmed the airstrike, but made no mention of al-Zawahri or other casualties.
It said the Taliban “strongly condemns this attack and calls it a clear violation of international principles and the Doha Agreement,” the US’s 2020 pact with the Taliban that led to the withdrawal of US troops.
“Such actions are a repeat of the failed experiences of the past 20 years and are against the interests of the United States of America, Afghanistan and the region,” the statement said.
Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor, Ellen Knickmeyer, Zeke Miller, James LaPorta, Michael Balsamo and Darlene Superville in Washington; Rahim Faiez in Islamabad; and Lee Keath in Cairo reported.