The death of Ayman al-Zawahiri, in what United States President Joe Biden called a “precision strike” in Afghanistan, marks the biggest blow to the terror group since its founder Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011.
By Erin Viner
Zawahiri helped coordinate the 11 September 2001 terror attacks in the US that killed nearly 3,000 people. He was also believed to have plotted with other senior al-Qaeda leaders the attack on the USS Cole naval vessel in Yemen which killed 17 American sailors and injured more than 30 others on 12 October 2000. The former Egyptian surgeon, who had a $25 million bounty on his head, was additionally indicted in Washington for his role in the 7 August 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people and wounded more than 5,000 others.
Then-al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who masterminded 9/11, and Zawahiri eluded capture when US-led forces toppled Afghanistan’s Taliban government in late 2001 in response to the terror attacks. Bin Laden was ultimately shot and killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan on 2 May 2011 in a joint covert operation by the US Naval Special Warfare Development Group (SEAL Team Six) and Central Intelligence Agency SAD/SOG operators on the orders of then-President Barack Obama; after which Zawahir became leader of the notorious terror group.
“Now justice has been delivered, and this terrorist leader is no more,” President Biden said in remarks from the White House, stressing that, “No matter how long it takes, no matter where you hide, if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out.”
Confirming he had authorized the precision strike in downtown Kabul, the US leader added that no civilians were killed during the operation.
American officials speaking on the condition of anonymity said Zawahiri was hit by Hellfire missiles fired by an armed US unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV or drone) when he came out on the balcony of his safe house in the Afghani capital of Kabul at 6:18 AM local time (0148 GMT, 9:48 PM ET)) the morning of 30 September.
“Zawahiri continued to pose an active threat to US persons, interests and national security,” one senior administration official on a conference call with reporters, adding that, “his death deals a significant blow to al-Qaeda and will degrade the group’s ability to operate.”
Former President Obama expressed his hope on Twitter that the operation “provides a small measure of peace to the 9/11 families and everyone else who has suffered at the hands of al-Qaeda,” saying that it also serves as “proof that it’s possible to root out terrorism without being at war in Afghanistan.”
The attack is the first known US strike inside Afghanistan since American troops and diplomats left the country in August 2021. The move may bolster credibility of the Biden Administration’s assurances that the White House is able to successfully combat threats from Afghanistan without having a military presence in the country.
Questions are now being raised as to whether Zawahiri was granted sanctuary by the Taliban after their takeover of Kabul in August 2021. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Taliban had “grossly violated” the Doha Agreement between the two sides by hosting and sheltering Zawahiri.
“The Taliban will have to answer for Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul, after assuring the world they would not give safe haven to al-Qaeda terrorists,” Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Rep. Adam Schiff said in a statement.
The US had been watching for indications of al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan since the military withdrawal, and the mission to locate and kill Zawahiri was the result of “careful patient and persistent” work by multiple streams of the counter-terrorism and intelligence community, the senior administration official said. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan briefed President Biden after Zawahiri, his wife, daughter and her children were identified as holing up at at the Kabul safe house in early April; and on 1 July Biden was subsequently briefed on a proposed operation by Cabinet members including CIA Director William Burns.
In recent weeks, the president convened meetings with key advisors and Cabinet members to scrutinize the intelligence and evaluate the best course of action, including investigation into the construction of the safe house to ensure the US could confidently conduct an operation to kill Zawahiri without threatening the structural integrity of the building while minimizing any risk to civilians and Zawahiri’s family, the official said.
On 25 July, President Biden authorized “a precise tailored air strike” on the condition that it minimize the risk of civilian casualties; following analysis of the potential ramifications of a strike in Kabul and determination by senior inter-agency attorneys that Zawahiri was a lawful target based on his continuing al-Qaeda leadership.
Taliban Spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed that a strike took place in Kabul on Sunday and strongly condemned it as a violation of “international principles.”
Afghani Interior Ministry Spokesperson Abdul Nafi Takor said only that a rocket hit a structure in the upscale residential neighborhood of Sherpoor, but that “there were no casualties as the house was empty.” The Taliban closed off the area in the wake of the strike, and journalists were not allowed nearby.