A US drone strike in Afghanistan this weekend killed Ayman al-Zawahri, who took over as leader of al-Qaeda after the death of Osama bin Laden in a 2011 airstrike, President Joe Biden confirmed Monday, 11 months after US troops took over. had left the country after a two-decade war.
“Justice has been pronounced and this terrorist leader is no more,” Biden, who is in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19 again, said in an evening address from the balcony at the White House’s Blue Room.
“No matter how long it takes, wherever you hide, if you pose a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out.”
Current and former officials began learning Sunday afternoon that al-Zawahri had been killed in a drone strike, but the government delayed releasing the information until his death could be confirmed, one person said.
Sounding hoarse and overworked, Biden described al-Zawahri as bin Laden’s No. 2 man during the September 11, 2001 attacks. The president said al-Zawahri was a “mastermind” deeply involved in 9/11, as well as the bombing of the battleship USS Cole and bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
The house where al-Zawahri was kept when he was assassinated in Kabul, where he and his family were in hiding, belonged to a top associate of 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.
The US president approved the operation last week and it was carried out on Sunday.
Bin Laden deputy al-Qaeda
The death of al-Zawahri eliminates the figure who has shaped al-Qaeda more than anyone else, first as bin Laden’s deputy since 1998, then as his successor.
Together, the two turned the jihadist movement’s weapons at the United States and carried out the September 11 terrorist attacks — the deadliest ever on American soil.
The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon made bin Laden the No. 1 enemy in the US, but he probably could never have carried it out without his deputy, who brought the tactics and organizational skills needed to keep militants in a network of cells. forging in countries around the world.
The bond between the two was forged in the late 1980s, when al-Zawahri reportedly treated the Saudi millionaire in the caves of Afghanistan when 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.
Saudi Arabia welcomed Biden’s announcement, the state news agency reported late Monday citing a statement from the State Department.
“Zawahri is considered one of the leaders of terrorism who led the planning and execution of horrific terrorist operations in the United States and Saudi Arabia,” the statement said.
Al-Zawahri was a longtime associate of Bin Laden
Photographs from the time of the 9/11 attacks often showed the bespectacled Egyptian doctor sitting next to bin Laden. Al-Zawahri merged his group of Egyptian militants with bin Laden’s al-Qaeda 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.
Speaking on August 31, 2021, after the last US troops left Afghanistan, Biden said the US would not give up its fight against terrorism in that country or elsewhere.
“We will continue the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries,” he said. “We just don’t have to wage ground war to do it.”
Biden previewed the attack that would take place 11 months later, then said, “We have what’s called over-the-horizon capabilities, meaning we can attack terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground — or very little, if required. “
There have 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 it “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.
In his brief speech on Monday, Biden expressed hope that al-Zawahri’s assassination will bring “another measure of closure” to the families of the victims of the September 11 attacks.
“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 happens again,” the president said.