WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said Monday that a U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan last weekend killed al-Qaeda’s supreme leader Ayman al-Zawahri, the successor to assassinated terrorist network leader Osama bin Laden.
“Justice has been handed down and this terrorist leader is gone,” the president said in a special address at the White House Monday night.
The strike, which took place Saturday night at 9:38 p.m. ET, is the first known U.S. strike in Afghanistan since Biden ended America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan last August.
Al-Zawahri, 71, stood on a balcony of a “safe house” in central Kabul that was hit by two rockets, according to a senior government official, who discussed the attack with reporters on condition of anonymity.
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The attacks killed Al-Zawahri, Al-Qaeda’s supreme leader since 2011, and no one else, including civilians, the official said, citing US intelligence. None of al-Zawahri’s relatives were present.
Biden, speaking from a White House balcony as he recovers from a rebound case of COVID-19, called al-Zawahri “the mastermind” for decades of attacks on the U.S. He was bin Laden’s top deputy during the terrorist attack 9/11 attacks in 2001 and helped carry out the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole and the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.
“He has charted a trail of murder and violence against American citizens, American military personnel, American diplomats and American interests,” Biden said. “People around the world no longer need to fear the cruel and determined killer.”
The president praised the mission as an “overall success” and said it was carefully planned to minimize risks to civilians.
Biden and other officials were first briefed on al-Zawahri’s location in April. The president learned of the proposed operation on July 1 and signed it after meeting top advisers on July 25, the official said.
“After carefully considering clear and convincing evidence of his location, I authorized the precision strike that would remove him from the battlefield once and for all,” Biden said.
Al-Zawahri’s death is a “significant blow to the group’s ability to operate, including against its US homeland,” the official said. Biden said al-Zawahri continued to provide strategic direction to the massive terrorist network and made videos calling for future attacks on the US
According to the official, the US had known about a network that provided protection to al-Zawahri for several years. This year, US intelligence revealed that al-Zawahri’s wife, his daughter and her children had been taken to a hiding place in Kabul, where al-Zawahri himself was later identified.
“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,” Biden said, adding that he hopes the death of all- Zawahri “one more measure of lockdown” to relatives of 9/11 victims.
Biden was vice president when the US assassinated bin Laden during the Obama administration in 2011. Saturday’s drone strike came nearly a year after the US’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, ending America’s longest war launched in response to the 9/11 attacks. The Taliban regained control of Afghanistan in the midst of the US exit last August.
Senior Taliban leaders were aware of Zawahri’s location, a US official said.
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Though he remained inconspicuous for most of the past 25 years, U.S. officials never gave up on the hunt for Zawahri, an Egyptian physician and eye surgeon by training who started out as bin Laden’s mentor when the two met in Afghanistan in the 1990s.
For years, the two worked hand in hand to build al-Qaida’s global terrorist reach and capabilities, with bin Laden acting as the public face of the organization and Zawahri as a master strategist with a deep understanding of Islamic theology.
Zawahri was initially much more influential than bin Laden and was the leader of Egypt’s Islamic Jihad, the terror group responsible for the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981.
Zawahri also spoke much better English than bin Laden and did much behind the scenes over the years to unite and keep the various al-Qaeda factions together.
sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, a combat veteran who sits on the Armed Services Committee, greeted the announcement.
Al-Zawahri “has the blood of far too many American servicemen and innocent civilians on his hands,” she said.
But some longtime US counterterrorism officials downplayed the significance of the attack, saying that over the years al-Zawahri had never really stepped into the void left after the US bin Laden, the founder of al-Qaeda and the man who had united terrorist groups. under the banner of al-Qaida in the late 1990s.
As a result, al-Qaida lacks the same top-down organizational structure it had before bin Laden’s death more than a decade ago, with at least five affiliates around the world now largely independent of each other and the “core of al-Qaeda.” Qaida” operating. According to Javed Ali, a senior National Security Council counter-terrorist official in the Trump administration who has followed al-Zawahri and other al-Qaeda leaders for decades, elements are still in Afghanistan.
“This is a continuation of the US’s long-standing efforts to decimate al-Qaeda’s leadership over the past 20 years, and although al-Zawahri took over the reins a decade ago, he never had the same status as bin Laden. He was more of a janitor, not a visionary,” said Ali, who also spent 16 years in top national security positions with the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.
It was al-Zawahri who wrote in a 1998 manifesto that the killing of Americans and their supporters anywhere in the world is “an individual duty of every Muslim who can do it in every country where it is possible to do it.”
Three years later, he played a key role in helping bin Laden oversee the suicide hijackings, which were devised and orchestrated by a close Pakistani ally, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
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Al-Zawahri’s role in 9/11 was not emphasized as much as that of bin Laden and Mohammed by the 9/11 Commission and other investigative bodies. But his leadership of the strong contingent of Egyptians who had come to Afghanistan to join al-Qaida helped him provide the operational skills, organizational know-how and financial expertise to carry out the attacks. The leader and chief hijacker of the 9/11 plot, Mohammed Atta, was a fellow Egyptian, and so were many of the organization’s top commanders who had sworn allegiance to al-Zawahri.
Initially much more influential than bin Laden, Al-Zawahri was the leader of Egypt’s Islamic Jihad, the terror group responsible for the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. “He was extremely influential,” Ali told USA TODAY . “He was a doctor, he was a thinker and he was more than 10 years old than bin Laden when they came together” in Afghanistan.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said it has long been clear that Zawahri was “one of the most challenging targets we faced.”
He said the Taliban “will have to answer for” al-Zawahri’s presence in Kabul, noting that they had assured the US that they would not give al-Qaida terrorists a safe haven.
Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden announced the assassination of al-Qaeda target Ayman al-Zawahri