A senior administration official told reporters that the U.S. killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahri with a drone strike over the weekend. This was part of an operation to find him by talking to his family.
The strike, which was done by a CIA-controlled Air Force drone, happened at 6:18 a.m. local time on Sunday in Kabul as the al Qaeda leader stood on his balcony, an official said. A separate person familiar with the operation said it took “a few days” to confirm the death because the U.S. doesn’t “have many assets on the ground.”
Zawahri never became as well-known as his predecessor, Osama bin Laden, but his death is still a big win for the US in its fight against Islamist terrorism. This is especially true since the UN has warned that the terrorist group is becoming a bigger long-term threat than other groups like the Islamic State.
President Joe Biden said in a speech announcing the operation that he gave the final go-ahead to kill Zawahri, who was still planning attacks against the U.S. and its allies. He also said, “Justice has been done, and this terrorist leader is dead.” A senior administration official told reporters minutes before that speech how Zawahri was hunted, found, and then killed.
The official said, “This year, we found out that Zawahri’s wife, daughter, and her children moved to a safe house in Kabul.” “We then found Zawahri at the location in Kabul by putting together different kinds of information.” The terrorist leader often stood on his balcony, which gave the U.S. a chance to watch him and confirm who he was.
“The president was kept up to date on the development of the target throughout May and June,” the senior official said. “On July 1, Biden was briefed in the White House Situation Room on a proposed operation.” There were a lot of important people at that meeting, like CIA Director William Burns, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.
“The strike was finally done by an unmanned aerial vehicle at 9:48 p.m. Eastern on July 30. Zawahri was hit with two Hellfire missiles…. “The strike only killed Zawahri,” the official said, adding that there is no proof that anyone else died.
Zawahri was an Egyptian. After the U.S. killed al Qaeda’s longtime leader bin Laden in 2011, he took over. He was a doctor and started a militant group called Egyptian Islamic Jihad. In the late 1990s, this group joined with al Qaeda. He was charged with having something to do with the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998.
The announcement comes almost a year after the US finished pulling out of Afghanistan, a country it invaded in 2001 after bin Laden planned the Sept. 11 attacks.
The withdrawal turned into chaos, and it was one of Biden’s worst times as president. The U.S. had to evacuate more than 100,000 people trying to leave the country after Taliban militants took control of it in an incredibly short amount of time. The US has told the Taliban that they can’t let terrorist groups like al Qaeda use Afghan land. Zawahri’s presence in Kabul raises questions about ties between the Taliban and al Qaeda, which the US has told the Taliban not to do.
The operation is the first U.S. strike in Kabul in almost a year, when a U.S. drone strike killed an innocent aid worker and nine members of his family just days before the U.S. military left Afghanistan. Last year, Gen. Frank McKenzie, who was in charge of CENTCOM at the time, told reporters that the aid worker was a member of the Islamic State’s Afghanistan branch and was planning a “imminent” attack on Hamid Karzai International Airport. This was based on information that the worker was a member of the branch’s Afghanistan branch.
The killing of Zawahri gives the government some good news to talk about before a sad anniversary. It also backs up the U.S. claim that it can still get information about terrorist activity in Afghanistan from “over the horizon,” even though it no longer has combat troops there.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told POLITICO that the Senate Intelligence Committee was told about the strike. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who is on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the operation “an important success.” He also said, “This strike should send a message to terrorists near and far: if you plan to kill Americans, we will find you and kill you.”
“The attack that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri was a big win for the U.S. in the fight against terrorism. Mick Mulroy, who used to work for the Pentagon and is now retired from the CIA as a paramilitary operations officer, said, “This is the result of countless hours of intelligence gathering over many years.”
We have delivered on our commitment to act against terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan. The world is safer following the death of al Qa’ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The U.S. will continue to act against those who threaten our country, our people, or our allies.
— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) August 2, 2022
Ben Rhodes, a former top Obama administration official, told POLITICO that the killing was “a landmark operation” and that it “also shows that Biden didn’t need to keep troops in Afghanistan to keep a counterterrorism capability.”
A South Asian official, who did not want to be named because the topic was sensitive, was shocked to hear that Zawahri was “roaming in Kabul.”
Researchers who study terrorism and other people thought for years that Zawahri was probably hiding in Pakistan, which is where bin Laden was found. Some people thought Zawahri might be somewhere in the huge city of Karachi in Pakistan.
“This [strike] will take some attention away from things like how the Afghanistan withdrawal was a disaster and hurt U.S. counterterrorism efforts,” a South Asian official said.
But a member of Congress’s staff said that even without Zawahri, al Qaeda is still a strong force in Afghanistan.
“It’s great that they caught one of the hundreds of al Qaeda members in Afghanistan, but the Taliban government, which came to power with the help of the Biden administration, is hosting senior al Qaeda leaders in downtown Kabul,” the person said. “The Biden administration gives a lot of money to the same regime.”
It wasn’t clear right away who would take over as leader of the terrorist group after Zawahri.
Daniel Byman, a terrorism expert at the Brookings Institution, said in December 2020 that one of the most important questions for him as al Qaeda leader was how he would hand over power to the next leader. “For now, there is no obvious successor with Zawahri’s wide name recognition and respect in the jihadi world,” he wrote. “Any successor will also benefit from the decline of ISIS, which is much weaker and less inspiring now that it has lost the caliphate.”
At least one name has been brought up as a possible successor: Saif al-Adl, a pen name for an Egyptian man. People think that the experienced jihadist spent a lot of time in Iran, where his movements were often limited.
A Taliban spokesman named Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted on Monday that “an air strike was done on a house in the Sherpur neighbourhood of Kabul city.”
Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. who now works at the Hudson Institute, said, “One question now would be whether the Taliban helped the U.S. kill Zawahri or whether the U.S. did it on its own.”