‘Let’s deal with it’: in the elite Kabul district where Zawahiri was hit | Ayman al-Zawahiric

The al-Qaeda leader spent the last weeks of his life less than 500 meters from the swimming pool and bar where British diplomats relaxed during their Kabul tours.

The ostentatious house where Ayman al-Zawahiri was reportedly killed by a drone strike while on his balcony is in the heart of the Afghan capital.

Tuesday morning, sheets of dark green plastic covered the shattered windows shown in photos previously shared on social media. But Afghanistan’s new rulers were aggressive to stop journalists and curious bystanders from taking a closer look at the damaged house.

Green plastic hangs over the house in the Sherpur neighborhood of Kabul.
Green plastic hangs over the house in the Sherpur neighborhood of Kabul. Photo: Lyse Doucet/@bbclysedoucet

“It’s our own pain, let’s deal with it,” a combative Taliban guard told Guardian reporters, after blocking access to the street where Zawahiri had lived, following them as they left the site and accessing their phones. demanded.

Other journalists were harassed and had guns pointed at them. Neighbors said the Taliban had visited at night and ordered them not to leave anyone on rooftops that could give a clear view of the four-storey house.

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Local residents in the capital’s Sherpur district said they had no idea they were sleeping next to a man with a $25 million (£20.5 million) bounty on his head, but said they were used to being in a dangerous area. live.

Its wealthy, high-profile residents and a cluster of nearby embassies have made it a magnet for major attacks for years.

In 2014, an attack on a popular Lebanese restaurant killed more than 20 people, a 2017 truck bomb outside the nearby German embassy killed more than 150 people in 2017, and an explosion destroyed the home of a man almost exactly a year ago. the then Defense Minister, Bismillah Khan.

“We are familiar with these things,” said Saeed, who runs a travel agency just a few blocks from the site of the drone attack, which startled the office cleaner early Sunday morning. “If There’s Someone” [important] there is nothing we can do about this.”

He was relieved that there was no damage from the strike, which the US claimed was so close that only one person was killed, as the entire office had to be rebuilt after the German embassy exploded five years ago.

Smoke rises over Kabul after US attack that killed al-Qaida’s Ayman al-Zawahiri – video report

But while previous assassinations in Sherpur had been the work of Taliban suicide squads targeting Americans and their Afghan allies, this time the roles of fighter and hunted have been reversed. It was a Taliban guest—or perhaps a prisoner—who was in Washington’s crosshairs.

“Given its location in a very busy (and previously heavily expatriate) area of ​​Kabul, there is little to deny for the Taliban,” said Ashley Jackson, co-director of the Center on Armed Groups and an expert on militant groups in Afghanistan. .

“One theory is that the Taliban had him under some sort of house arrest, which allowed them to keep a close eye on him and explain why he was in the heart of the capital.”

Ayman al-Zawahiric
Ayman al-Zawahiric Photo: Site Intelligence Group/AFP/Getty Images

A year ago, the al-Qaida leader’s neighbors in Sherpur are said to have included warlords and corrupt technocrats, whose huge mansions were often built on stolen land. The excesses of the area became symbolic of the Afghan republic’s corruption and abuse.

A now-closed supermarket at the end of the road allowed wealthy locals and foreigners to buy imported luxuries from frozen lobster to Dorset Cereals granola and Ritter Sport chocolates.

Ten years earlier, many of Sherpur’s huge and often ostentatious “pop palaces”—named for the opium money pouring into the capital—were also rented out at inflated prices to American contractors who got rich from the war.

Taliban guard in Sherpur after the drone attack.
Taliban guard in Sherpur after the drone attack. Photo: EPA

By the time the al-Qaeda leader took office earlier this year, Taliban ministers and commanders had replaced the Afghan republic’s elite and its allies. They took over some of the city’s most important real estate when they took power, as their predecessors had done two decades earlier.

The view from the top of Zawahiri’s home in Kabul would have encompassed the huge old trees of the heavily fortified green zone, where diplomats and NATO generals crouched as they slowly lost the war.

Now it is the center of the Taliban’s heavily sanctioned pariah regime, protected by extensive intelligence and security networks. In this militant bubble, Zawahiri apparently felt relaxed enough to live with his family and spend time outside on the balcony, while American drones circled overhead, tracking the city’s residents.

A view of the Sherpur district.
A view of the Sherpur district. Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Under the Doha deal negotiated by the Donald Trump administration with the Taliban that paved the way for America to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, the militants pledged not to allow al-Qaeda members that pose a threat to the US and its allies operating in the country.

They also pledged not to allow Afghan territory to be used for planning international terror attacks. Less than a year after the last American troops left the city’s airport, Zawahiri led a global jihadist organization from Kabul.

Joe Biden claimed the strike as a victory in the fight against terrorism and eventually took out one of the architects of the 9/11 attacks on America.

Yet many in Afghanistan fear that more violence could follow. A neighbor heard the drone strike. He said the area was soon overrun with troops from the Taliban’s elite Badri unit, who closed off all side roads leading to the house and one lane of the main road leading out.

“I haven’t been near the location because they can arrest you and ask what you are doing,” he said, but added that he was alarmed by the news of who had been hit. “Now I’m wondering if I should move.”

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