WASHINGTON — A US drone strike in Afghanistan this weekend killed Ayman al-Zawahri, who took over as al Qaeda leader after Osama bin Laden was killed in a US raid. President Joe Biden was due to announce the killing on Monday, marking a major counter-terrorism victory just 11 months after US troops left the country after two decades of war.
The strike, carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency, was confirmed by five people familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity before Biden prepared to update the American people on the details of the operation in a speech at 7:30 p.m. EDT. m. to the nation.
Current and former officials began hearing on Sunday afternoon that al-Zawahri had been killed in a drone strike, but the administration delayed releasing the information until his death was confirmed, according to one person.
White House officials declined to confirm that al-Zawahri was killed, but noted in a statement that the United States conducted a “successful” counterterrorism operation against a major al-Qaeda target, adding that there were “no civilian casualties.”
The house where Al-Zawahri was 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 and aerial reconnaissance team conducted after the drone strike confirmed al-Zawahri’s death.
Al-Zawahri’s loss eliminates the figure who more than anyone shaped al-Qaeda, first as Osama bin Laden’s deputy from 1998 and then as his successor. Together, he and bin Laden turned the weapons of the jihadist movement to target the United States, carrying out the deadliest attack ever on American soil – the suicide bombers of September 11, 2001.
The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon made bin Laden America’s enemy No. 1. But he probably never could have done it without his deputy. Bin Laden provided al-Qaeda with charisma and money, but al-Zawahri brought the tactical and organizational skills needed to forge the militants into a network of cores in countries around the world.
Their bond 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.
Zawahri, on the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list, had a $25 million bounty on his head for any information that could be used to kill or capture him.
Biden planned to speak from the balcony of the White House Blue Room as he remains in residential isolation while continuing to test positive for COVID-19.
Al-Zawhiri and Bin Laden planned the 9/11 attacks that brought many ordinary Americans their first knowledge of Al-Qaeda.
Photos from the era often showed the bespectacled, mild-mannered Egyptian doctor sitting by bin Laden’s side. Al-Zawahiri had merged his group of Egyptian fighters with bin Laden’s al-Qaeda in the 1990s.
“Egypt’s powerful section applied organizational expertise, financial know-how and military experience to launch a violent jihad against leaders the militants saw 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 abandon 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 have to go to ground war to do it.” Previewing the strike that would take place 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 necessary. “
There had been rumors of al-Zawahri’s death for several years. But in April, a video emerged of the al-Qaeda leader praising an Indian Muslim woman who had defied a ban on wearing the hijab, or headscarf. This video was the first evidence in months that he was still alive.
A statement from the Afghan Taliban government confirmed the airstrike but did not name 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 2020 US-Taliban agreement that led to the withdrawal of US 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.
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