A US drone strike in Afghanistan has killed the top al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, Joe Biden announced on Monday.
The US president described the death of Zawahiri, who was Osama bin Laden’s deputy and successor, as a major blow to the terrorist network behind the September 11 2001 attacks.
“Justice has been delivered and this terrorist leader is no more,” Biden said in a live televised address from the White House. “People around the world no longer need to fear the vicious and determined killer.”
The CIA strike will be seen as a proof of the US’s ability to conduct “over-the-horizon” operations despite last year’s military withdrawal from Afghanistan. But it also raised questions over al-Qaida’s continued presence in the country since the Taliban regained power.
One of the world’s most wanted men, Zawahiri and his family had moved into a safe house in downtown Kabul, the capital, according to White House officials. He was spotted on a balcony on numerous occasions over several months and continued to produce al-Qaida propaganda videos, some of which may yet appear posthumously.
Zawahiri moved to a “very safe place” in Kabul a few months after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August last year, a senior leader of the Islamist movement told Reuters on Tuesday on condition of anonymity.
The 71-year-old died moments after stepping out on to the balcony on Sunday morning, US officials said.
Biden was personally involved in meetings to plan a potential strike against Zawahiri during May, June and July, a senior administration official said on a conference call with reporters.
The president “asked detailed questions about what we knew and how we knew it. Importantly, he examined closely the model of al-Zawahiri’s house that the intelligence community had built and brought into the White House situation room for briefings on this issue”, the official said.
Biden sought explanations of lighting, weather, construction material and other factors that could influence the operation and reduce the risk of civilian casualties, the official added. “He was particularly focused on ensuring that every step had been taken to ensure the operation would minimise that risk and he wanted to understand the basis on which we had confidence in our assessment.”
The president eventually ordered a strike on the safe house at a meeting of key cabinet members and national security officials on 25 July. It was carried out at 9.48pm ET on Saturday by an unmanned aerial vehicle.
“Two Hellfire missiles were fired at Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was killed. We are confident through our intelligence sources and methods, including multiple streams of intelligence, that we killed al-Zawahiri and no other individual,” the official said.
They added that Zawahiri’s family members were present in other parts of the safe house at the time of the strike, were not targeted and were unharmed. “We have no indications that civilians were harmed in the strike. We took every possible precaution to avoid civilian harm.”
The official said they were able to watch members of the Taliban try after the strike to conceal Zawahiri’s former presence at the location, swiftly removing his wife, daughter and her children to another location.
“We have identified a concerted effort to restrict access to the safe house in the surrounding area for hours after the strike. The safe house used by al-Zawahiri is now empty.”
Unverified pictures on social media of what was described as the target of the attack showed shattered windows of a pink building, its fences topped with rolls of barbed wire. The house in the relatively prosperous Sherpur neighbourhood appeared two to three storeys tall and ringed by trees.
A senior Taliban leader said Zawahiri spent most of his time in the mountains of Helmand province’s Musa Qala district after the Taliban government was overthrown in 2001 in a US-led invasion. He said Zawahiri kept a low profile there but went in and out of Pakistan’s border regions several times.
Pakistan’s foreign office did not respond to questions about Zawahiri’s reported movements in and out of the country.
The description of Biden’s decisive action may be viewed by historians in contrast to multiple accounts suggesting that, as vice-president, he was hesitant or sceptical about going ahead with the special forces raid that killed Bin Laden in 2011.
Barack Obama said on Monday night the successful attack was a tribute to Biden’s leadership, and to intelligence operatives “who have been working for decades for this moment”.
He added: “Tonight’s news is also proof that it’s possible to root out terrorism without being at war in Afghanistan. And I hope it provides a small measure of peace to the 9/11 families and everyone else who has suffered at the hands of al-Qaida.”
That Bin Laden operation gave Obama a statesmanlike made-for-TV moment at the White House and, 11 years later, it was Biden’s turn, albeit on a balcony because of his coronavirus “rebound” infection.
Noting that Zawahiri had been “deeply involved” in 9/11, the president said: “The United States continues to demonstrate our resolve and our capacity to defend the American people against those who seek to do us harm.
“We make it clear again tonight that 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. We will never forget. We continue to mourn every innocent life that was stolen on 9/11 and honour their memories.”
Concerns about al-Qaida in Afghanistan
Zawahiri’s death marks the biggest blow to the fundamentalist Islamist organisation since the death of Bin Laden.
In a statement, a Taliban spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, confirmed that a strike took place and strongly condemned it, calling it a violation of “international principles”.
Zawahiri, an Egyptian surgeon, helped coordinate the 9/11 attacks in which four civilian aircraft were hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center’s twin towers in New York, the Pentagon near Washington and a Pennsylvania field, killing nearly 3,000 people. He had a $25m (£20.5m) bounty on his head.
His death raises questions about the relationship between al-Qaida and the Taliban following the latter’s takeover of Kabul in August 2021.
The drone attack is the first known US strike inside Afghanistan since US troops and diplomats left the country in August 2021.
The United Nations reported last month that al-Qaida had a haven in Afghanistan under the Taliban and “increased freedom of action” with the potential of launching new long-distance attacks in coming years, according to a report from the international body, based on intelligence supplied by member states.
The assessment, by the UN committee charged with enforcing sanctions on the Taliban and others that may threaten the security of Afghanistan, raised concerns that the country could once again become a base for international terrorist attacks after the rapid and chaotic withdrawal of US and Nato troops last year.
“Al-Qaida senior leadership enjoyed a more settled period in early 2022. Aiman Muhammed Rabi al-Zawahiri issued regular video messages that provided almost current proof of life. Member states note that al-Zawahiri’s apparent increased comfort and ability to communicate has coincided with the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and the consolidation of power of key al-Qaida allies within their de facto administration,” the UN committee said.
The building where Zawahiri and his family were staying is reportedly owned by an aide to a senior Taliban official with longstanding links to extremist organisations including al-Qaida.
“Al-Qaida is not viewed as posing an immediate international threat from its safe haven in Afghanistan because it lacks an external operational capability and does not currently wish to cause the Taliban international difficulty or embarrassment,” the UN report said.
Though al-Qaida has been overshadowed by the violence of Islamic State in recent years, it remains a potential threat with a presence in parts of south Asia, the Middle East and the Sahel. Several dozen al-Qaida senior leaders are based in Afghanistan, as well as affiliated groups such as al-Qaida in the Indian subcontinent.
The Taliban have repeatedly said they are adhering to an agreement signed with the US in 2020, before taking power, in which they promised to fight terrorists, and they have said Afghanistan will not be used as a launching pad for attacks against other countries.
The report credits the Taliban with making efforts to restrain al-Qaida, but raises concerns that these may not last.
An undisclosed number of al-Qaida members are reported to be living in Kabul’s former diplomatic quarter, where they may have access to meetings at the foreign affairs ministry, the report’s authors say, although they say this information is not confirmed.
The report also said a sudden spate of statements and communications from Zawahiri had suggested at the time that “he may be able to lead more effectively than was possible before the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan”.
Republicans welcomed the killing of Zawahiri but questioned how he had come to be living with impunity in Kabul. Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader in the House of Representatives, said: “This news also sheds light on the possible re-emergence of al-Qaida in Afghanistan following President Biden’s disastrous withdrawal a year ago.
“The Biden administration must provide Congress with a classified briefing as soon as possible to discuss the resurgence of al-Qaida in the region over the past year, the current foreign terrorist threat to America and the steps we must take to keep our country safe and prevent terrorists from entering the United States.”
Agencies contributed reporting