President Biden announced Monday that al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, the master planner of the 9/11 attacks, was killed in a CIA drone strike that he ordered to target the terrorist leader in Afghanistan.
Al-Zawahiri, one of the world’s most wanted terrorists, helped oversee the 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, worked closely with former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and led the group over the past decade since bin Laden’s killing.
The 71-year-old al-Masri was killed in a drone strike at 6:48 p.m. local time on Saturday at a residential site in Kabul, which fell to the Taliban almost a year ago almost immediately after Biden ordered the last US troops to withdraw — a development. Many fear it will lead to more terrorist activity in the Afghan capital.
“Justice has been served, this terrorist leader is no longer,” Biden said from the balcony of the blue room, as he remained in isolation inside the White House after he tested positive for the coronavirus in rebound. “No matter how long it takes, no matter how long you hide, if you represent a threat to our people, the United States will find you and drive you out.”
Biden added that Afghanistan “cannot be a launching pad against the United States. We will see that this will not happen.”
A decade after bin Laden was killed during a daring raid on his heavily fortified compound on the outskirts of the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, Zawahiri’s whereabouts remain a mystery.
But a senior US administration official said US intelligence officials tracked al-Zawahiri and his family to a safe house in central Kabul, where they moved earlier this year. Over the next few months, officials watched al-Zawahiri on the balcony, as he was beaten and eventually killed in a plan devised to minimize risks to his family and civilians in the densely populated area.
The official said Biden was first briefed in April, received updates on intelligence throughout May and June, and gave the green light for the attack after a meeting with top Cabinet and national security advisers on July 25, in which all participants attended. They expressed their support for the mission.
Five days later, a drone carried out the attack, firing two Hellfire missiles at al-Zawahiri on the balcony, killing him alone. Unlike the operation targeting bin Laden, which lasted 40 minutes and ended with the killing of five people, including one of bin Laden’s sons, the drone strike was carried out without any US military presence on the ground in Afghanistan — “carefully planned,” Biden said, to minimize collateral damage. “There were no civilian casualties,” he said.
A senior US administration official said Taliban officials, who the White House said had long known of Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul, moved the terrorist’s relatives away shortly after the strike in an attempt to conceal their presence in the city.
The administration official added that the group’s harboring of al-Zawahiri amounted to a violation of the Doha agreement between the United States and the Taliban, under which the group agreed not to cooperate with terrorist groups.
Biden, who has long been skeptical about the military’s commitment to the war in Afghanistan, was famous for warning President Obama about the dangers of bin Laden’s 2011 raid when he was vice president.
Ending the war there after 20 years of conflict was among Biden’s top priorities in the first year, and he went ahead with the withdrawal in the face of warnings from the Pentagon, mocking the prospect of the country’s previous government falling to the Taliban for a few weeks. Before that — a foreign policy disaster that forced the White House to scramble by air to transport thousands of vulnerable Afghans to safety, a disaster from which its popularity has yet to recover.
Biden said the successful strike on al-Zawahiri validated his rationale for ending the US presence in Afghanistan, which was based in part on the belief that counterterrorism operations could still be carried out without a permanent presence on the ground.
“As President Biden has consistently said, we will not allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven for terrorists to harm Americans,” a senior administration official told reporters before Biden’s remarks. “We met with that commitment Saturday night. In doing so, we demonstrated that without US forces on the ground in Afghanistan and in harm’s way, we are still able to identify and identify even the world’s most wanted terrorists, and then take action to remove them from the battlefield.”
Daniel R. Deptris, a fellow at Defense Priorities Group, a veterans group deeply skeptical about the deployment of military power, came to the same conclusion. “The targeted killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a CIA drone strike in Afghanistan underscores a crucial fact: The United States does not need to permanently deploy military forces to defend against terrorist threats,” Diptrice said.
Air strikes or raids have proven to be a more efficient and less costly way to neutralize anti-US terrorist groups. Al-Zawahiri is the latest in a long list of senior terrorist leaders, operators and facilitators to be removed from the battlefield, including Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The 2019 strike was commissioned by President Trump.
Biden, in his short prime-time address to the country, reminded the nation of al-Zawahiri’s central role in several al-Qaeda attacks, including the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen and of course 9/11.
Speaking to relatives of those killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and on United Flight 93 that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, Biden expressed hope that Zawahiri’s death would be “another shutdown measure.”