By MATTHEW LEE, MARCHAND NOMAAN and AAMER MADHANI
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden announced Monday that al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Kabul, an operation he said brought justice and, hopefully, “another measure of closure” to the families of the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
The president said in an evening address from the White House that US intelligence officials tracked al-Zawahri to a house in downtown Kabul where he was hiding with his family. The president approved the operation last week and it was carried out on Sunday.
Al-Zawahri and the better-known Osama bin Laden plotted the September 11 attacks that brought many ordinary Americans to know about Al-Qaeda for the first time. Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan on May 2, 2011, in an operation by US Navy SEALs after a nearly decade-long hunt.
As for Al-Zawahri, Biden said, “He will never, ever again allow Afghanistan to become a haven for terrorists because he is gone and we are going to make sure nothing else happens.
“This terrorist leader is no more,” he added.
The operation is a significant counterterrorism victory for the Biden administration just 11 months after US troops left the country following a two-decade war.
The strike was carried out by the CIA, according to five people familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity. Neither Biden nor the White House detailed CIA involvement in the strike.
Biden, however, paid tribute to the US intelligence community in his remarks, noting that “thanks to their persistence and extraordinary skill” the operation was a success.
Al-Zawahri’s death eliminates the man who shaped al-Qaeda more than anyone else, first as Bin Laden’s deputy since 1998, then as his successor. Together, he and bin Laden diverted the weapons of the jihadist movement to target the United States, carrying out the deadliest attack ever on American soil – the 9/11 suicide attacks.
The house Al-Zawahri was in when he was killed belonged to a senior Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, according to a senior intelligence official. The official also added that a CIA ground team and aerial reconnaissance conducted after the drone attack confirmed al-Zawahri’s death.
On Tuesday morning, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that “there was no one on the ground in uniform when this strike happened. “. Sullivan added that the U.S. government is “in direct communication with the Taliban on this, and I’m not going to telegraph our next moves, but the Taliban understand that the United States is going to defend their interests.”
During the 20-year war in Afghanistan, the United States targeted and divided al-Qaeda, sending leaders into hiding. But the US exit from Afghanistan last September gave the extremist group the opportunity to rebuild.
US military officials, including Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said al-Qaeda was trying to reconstitute itself in Afghanistan, where it faced limited threats from the Taliban now in power. power. Military leaders have warned that the group still aspires to attack the United States
After his murder, the White House stressed that al-Zawahri continued to be a dangerous figure. The senior administration official said al-Zawahri continued to “provide strategic direction,” including urging attacks on the United States, while in hiding. He had also prioritized members of the terror network that the United States remained al-Qaeda’s “main enemy”, the official said.
The 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon made bin Laden America’s number one enemy. But he probably wouldn’t have been able to do it without his deputy. Bin Laden provided al-Qaeda with charisma and money, but al-Zawahri brought the tactics and organizational skills needed to forge militants into a network of cells in countries around the world.
US intelligence officials have known for years of a network helping al-Zawahri dodge US intelligence agents looking for him, but had no idea of his possible location until recent months.
Earlier this year, US officials learned that the terror leader’s wife, daughter and children had moved to a safe house in Kabul, according to the senior administration official who briefed reporters.
Officials eventually learned that al-Zawahri was also at the Kabul safe house.
In early April, White House deputy national security adviser Jon Finer and Biden homeland security adviser Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall were briefed on this developing intelligence. Soon, the intelligence was passed to National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.
Sullivan brought the information to Biden as U.S. intelligence officials built “a life model through multiple independent sources of information to inform the operation,” the official said.
Senior Taliban officials were aware of al-Zawahri’s presence in Kabul, according to the official, who added that the Taliban government was not notified of the operation.
Within the Biden administration, only a small group of key agency officials, along with Vice President Kamala Harris, have been brought into the process. In May and June, Biden was repeatedly updated on the growing mound of intelligence that confirmed al-Zawahri was hiding in the house. Over the past few weeks, Biden has brought together several Cabinet officials and key national security officials to review the intelligence findings.
On July 1, Biden was briefed in the situation room about the planned operation, a briefing during which the president closely examined a model of the house in which al-Zawahri was hiding. He gave his final approval for the operation on Thursday. Al-Zawahri was on the balcony of his hideout on Sunday when two Hellfire missiles were launched from an unmanned drone, killing him.
Al-Zawahri’s family was in another part of the house when the operation was carried out, and no one else was reportedly killed during the operation, the official said.
“We reaffirm it clearly tonight: 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 eliminate you,” Biden said.
Al-Zawahri was not a household name like bin Laden, but he played a huge role in the terrorist group’s operations.
The bond between the two terrorist leaders was forged in the late 1980s, when al-Zawahri reportedly nursed Saudi millionaire bin Laden into the caves of Afghanistan as Soviet bombardments shook the mountains around them.
Al-Zawahri, on the FBI’s most wanted terrorists list, had a $25 million bounty on his head for any information that could be used to kill or capture him.
Al-Zawhiri and bin Laden plotted the September 11 attacks that brought many ordinary Americans their first knowledge of al-Qaeda.
Photos from the time often showed the bespectacled, mild-looking Egyptian doctor sitting next to bin Laden. Al-Zawahiri had merged his group of Egyptian militants with Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda in the 1990s.
“The strong contingent of Egyptians applied organizational know-how, financial expertise and military experience to wage a violent jihad against leaders whom the fighters considered un-Islamic and their patrons, particularly the United States” , wrote Steven A. Cook for the Council on Foreign Relations last year.
When the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 demolished al-Qaeda’s haven and dispersed, killed and captured its members, al-Zawahri ensured al-Qaeda’s survival. He rebuilt his leadership in the Afghan-Pakistan border region and installed allies as lieutenants in key positions.
He also reshaped the organization from a centralized terrorist attack planner to the head of a franchise chain. He led the assembly of a network of self-sustaining branches throughout the region, including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, North Africa, Somalia, Yemen and Asia. Over the next decade, al-Qaida inspired or directly participated in attacks in all of these regions as well as in Europe, Pakistan and Turkey, including the 2004 Madrid train bombings and the bombings in a London transit in 2005.
More recently, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen has shown itself capable of planning attacks on American soil with an attempted bombing of an American airliner in 2009 and an attempted package bomb l ‘Next year.
But even before bin Laden’s death, al-Zawahri was struggling to maintain al-Qaida’s relevance in a changing Middle East.
He tried without much success to co-opt the wave of uprisings that swept across the Arab world from 2011, urging Islamic hardliners to pick up the slack in countries where leaders had fallen. But while the Islamists have risen to prominence in many places, they have deep ideological differences with al-Qaeda and reject its agenda and leadership.
Nevertheless, al-Zawahri attempted to portray himself as the leader of the Arab Spring. America “is facing an Islamic nation that is in revolt, that has gone from lethargy to a revival of jihad,” he said in a video eulogy to bin Laden, dressed in a white robe and in a turban with an assault rifle leaning on a wall behind him. .
Al-Zawahri was also a more controversial figure than his predecessor. Many activists have described the soft-spoken bin Laden in adoring and almost spiritual terms.
By contrast, al-Zawahri was notoriously pungent and pedantic. He picked ideological fights with critics within the jihadist camp, waving his finger in reprimanding fashion in his videos. Even some key figures in al-Qaeda’s central leadership have been pushed back, calling it too controlling, secretive and divisive.
Some activists whose association with bin Laden predates that of al-Zawahri have always viewed him as an arrogant intruder.
“I never took orders from al-Zawahri,” sneered Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, one of the network’s leading figures in East Africa until his death in 2011, in a memoir put on display. online in 2009. our historical leadership.
There had been rumors of al-Zawahri’s death for several years. But a video surfaced in April of the al-Qaeda leader praising an Indian Muslim woman who defied a ban on wearing a hijab or headscarf. This footage was the first proof in months that he was still alive.
A statement from the Afghan Taliban government confirmed the airstrike, but did not mention al-Zawahri or any other casualties.
He said the Taliban “strongly condemns this attack and calls it a clear violation of international principles and the Doha Agreement,” the 2020 US pact with the Taliban that led to the withdrawal of US forces.
“Such actions are a repeat of the failed experiments of the past 20 years and run counter to the interests of the United States of America, Afghanistan and the region,” the statement said.
Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor, Ellen Knickmeyer, Zeke Miller, James LaPorta, Michael Balsamo and Darlene Superville in Washington; Rahim Faiez in Islamabad; and Lee Keath in Cairo contributed reporting.