US assassinates al-Qaeda leader, ‘one more measure of closure’

Al-Zawahri’s death eliminates the figure who more than anyone shaped al-Qaeda, first as bin Laden’s deputy since 1998, then as his successor.

By Associated Press

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 delivered justice and hopefully “one more measure of closure” to families of the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

The president said in an evening address from the White House that U.S. intelligence officials tracked al-Zawahri to a home in downtown Kabul where he was hiding out with his family. The president approved the operation last week and it was carried out Sunday.

Al-Zawahri and the better-known Osama bin Laden plotted the 9/11 attacks that brought many ordinary Americans their first knowledge of al-Qaeda. Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan on May 2, 2011, in operation carried out by U.S. Navy SEALs after a nearly decade-long hunt.

As for Al-Zawahri, Biden said, “He will never again, never again, allow Afghanistan to become a terrorist safe haven because he is gone and we’re going to make sure that nothing else happens.”

“This terrorist leader is no more,” he added.

The operation is a significant counterterrorism win for the Biden administration just 11 months after American troops left the country after a two-decade war.

The strike was carried out by the CIA, according to five people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Neither Biden nor the White House detailed the CIA’s involvement in the strike.

Biden, however, paid tribute to the U.S. intelligence community in his remarks, noting that “thanks to their extraordinary persistence and skill,” the operation was a success.

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Al-Zawahri’s death eliminates the figure who more than anyone shaped al-Qaeda, first as bin Laden’s deputy since 1998, then as his successor. Together, he and bin Laden turned the jihadi movement’s guns to target the United States, carrying out the deadliest attack ever on American soil — the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings.

The house Al-Zawahri was in when he was killed was owned by a top aide to 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 strike confirmed al-Zawahri’s death.

A senior administration official who briefed reporters on the operation on condition of anonymity said “zero” U.S. personnel were in Kabul.

Over the 20-year war in Afghanistan, the U.S. targeted and splintered al-Qaeda, sending leaders into hiding. But America’s exit from Afghanistan last September gave the extremist group the opportunity to rebuild.

U.S. military officials, including Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have said al-Qaeda was trying to reconstitute in Afghanistan, where it faced limited threats from the now-ruling Taliban. Military leaders have warned that the group still aspired to attack the U.S.

After his killing, the White House underscored that al-Zawahri had continued to be a dangerous figure. The senior administration official said al-Zawahri had continued to “provide strategic direction,” including urging attacks on the U.S., while in hiding. He had also prioritized to members of the terror network that the United States remained al-Qaeda’s “primary enemy,” the official said.

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The 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon made bin Laden America’s Enemy No. 1. But he likely could never have carried it out without his deputy. Bin Laden provided al-Qaeda with charisma and money, but al-Zawahri brought tactics and organizational skills needed to forge militants into a network of cells in countries around the world.

U.S. intelligence officials have been aware for years of a network helping al-Zawahri dodge U.S. intelligence officials hunting for him but didn’t have a hint on his possible location until recent months.

Earlier this year, U.S. officials learned that the terror leader’s wife, daughter and her children had relocated to a safe house in Kabul, according to the senior administration official who briefed reporters.

Officials eventually learned al-Zawahri was also at the Kabul safe house.

The planned operation

In early April, White House deputy national security adviser Jon Finer and Biden’s homeland security adviser Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall were briefed on this developing intelligence. Soon the intelligence was carried up to national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

Sullivan brought the information to Biden as U.S. intelligence officials built “a pattern of life through multiple independent sources of information to inform the operation,” the official said.

Senior Taliban figures were aware of al-Zawahri’s presence in Kabul, according to the official, who added the Taliban government was given no forewarning of the operation.

Inside the Biden administration, only a small group of officials at key agencies, as well as Vice President Kamala Harris, were brought into the process. Through May and June, Biden was updated several times on the growing mound of intelligence that confirmed al-Zawahri was hiding out in the home. Over the last few weeks, Biden brought together several Cabinet officials and key national security officials to scrutinize the intelligence findings.

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On July 1, Biden was briefed in the Situation Room about the planned operation, a briefing in which the president closely examined a scale model of the home Zawahri was hiding out in. 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 believed to have been killed in the operation, the official said.

“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,” Biden said.

Al-Zawahri was hardly a household name like bin Laden, but he played an enormous role in the terror group’s operations.

The two terror leaders’ bond was forged in the late 1980s, when al-Zawahri reportedly treated the Saudi millionaire bin Laden in the caves of Afghanistan as Soviet bombardment shook the mountains around them.

Al-Zawahri, on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist 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 9/11 attacks that brought many ordinary Americans their first knowledge of al-Qaeda.