A U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan this weekend killed Ayman al-Zawahri, who took over as al-Qaeda leader after Osama bin Laden’s death during a raid on his compound by U.S. forces in 2011, President Joe Biden confirmed Monday, less than a year after American troops left the country following a two-decade war.
“Justice has been delivered, and this terrorist leader is no more,” Biden, who’s in isolation after testing positive again for COVID-19, said in an evening address from the balcony off the White House Blue Room.
“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.”
Current and former officials began hearing Sunday afternoon that al-Zawahri, 71, had been killed in a drone strike, but the administration delayed releasing the information until his death could be confirmed, according to one person.
Sounding somewhat hoarse and congested, Biden described al-Zawahri as bin Laden’s No. 2 man during the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. The president said al-Zawahri was a “mastermind” who was deeply involved in 9/11, as well as the bombing of USS Cole, a U.S. navy guided missile destroyer, and bombings at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
The house al-Zawahri was in when he was killed in Kabul, where he was hiding with his family, was owned by 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.
The U.S. president approved the operation last week and it was carried out on Sunday.
Bin Laden deputy shaped al-Qaeda
The death of al-Zawahri eliminates the figure who shaped al-Qaeda more than anyone, first as bin Laden’s deputy since 1998, then as his successor.
Together, the two turned the jihadi movement’s guns to target the United States, carrying out the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — the deadliest ever on American soil.
The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon made bin Laden Enemy No. 1 in the U.S., but he likely could never have carried it out without his deputy, who brought the tactics and organizational skills needed to forge militants into a network of cells 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 as Soviet bombardment shook the mountains around them.
Al-Zawahri, on the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list, had a $25-million US 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 on Monday quoting a Foreign Ministry statement.
“Zawahri is considered one of the leaders of terrorism that led the planning and execution of heinous terrorist operations in the United States and Saudi Arabia,” it said.
Al-Zawahri was longtime bin Laden associate
Photos from the time of the 9/11 attacks often showed the glasses-wearing Egyptian doctor sitting by bin Laden’s side. 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 whom the fighters considered to be un-Islamic and their patrons, especially the United States,” Steven A. Cook wrote for the Council on Foreign Relations last year.
Speaking on Aug. 31, 2021, after the last U.S. troops left Afghanistan, Biden said the U.S. would not let up on its fight against terrorism in that country or elsewhere.
“We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries,” he said. “We just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it.”
Previewing the strike that would occur 11 months later, Biden said at the time, “We have what’s called over-the-horizon capabilities, which means we can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground — or very few, if needed.”
There have been rumours of al-Zawahri’s death on and off for several years. But a video surfaced in April of the al-Qaeda leader praising an Indian Muslim woman who had defied a ban on wearing a hijab, or headscarf. That footage was the first proof in months that he was still alive.
A statement from Afghanistan’s Taliban government confirmed the airstrike, but did not mention al-Zawahri or any other casualties.
It said it “strongly condemns this attack and calls it a clear violation of international principles and the Doha Agreement,” the 2020 U.S. pact with the Taliban that led to the withdrawal of American forces.
“Such actions are a repetition 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 address on Monday, Biden expressed hope that al-Zawahri’s killing brings “one more measure of closure” to families of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.
“He will never again, never again, allow Afghanistan to become a terrorist safe haven because he is gone and we’re going to make sure that nothing else happens,” the president said.