Qaeda chief Zawahiri killed in US drone strike in Kabul

Biden says no one else including family of Laden’s aide was hurt in the attack: Taliban confirm a drone strike took place and strongly condemned it, calling it a violation of ‘international principles’

By: News Desk
Published: 08:56 AM, 2 Aug, 2022
Qaeda chief Zawahiri killed in US drone strike in Kabul
Caption: Al-Qaeda chief Ayman Al-Zawahiri
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Top al-Qaeda leader and key 9/11 plotter Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed by a drone strike carried out by the US on July 30, according to President Joe Biden.

"For decades he was the mastermind behind attacks against Americans," Biden said on Monday, also noting the 2000 USS Cole attack and the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Biden detailed al-Zawahiri's role leading al-Qaeda since Osama bin Laden was killed by US forces in 2011, including calling on followers in recent weeks to attack the US and allies in videos. "We make it clear again tonight that, 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.

Biden said that no one else was hurt in the strike, including al-Zawahiri's family, who were elsewhere in a safehouse, and there were no civilian casualties.

An administration official who briefed reporters ahead of Biden's remarks said al-Zawahiri was an active threat to US national security and that his death is a "hugely significant blow" to al-Qaeda.

"And to those around the world who continue to seek to harm the United States, hear me now: We will always remain vigilant and we will act and we will always do what is necessary to ensure the safety and security of Americans at home and around the globe," Biden said.

Biden was briefed on the proposed operation, and he convened a meeting on July 25 with key cabinet members and top officials for a final briefing on the intelligence assessment, the official said. There was unanimous support to strike the target and Biden authorized a "tailored" airstrike to minimize civilian casualties.

Zawahiri, an Egyptian eye doctor, had served as bin Laden's deputy before taking over al-Qaida in 2011. But al-Qaeda members had complained that he was comparatively uninspiring. The two men fought had together in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Zawahiri helped found Islamic Jihad, the group that assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Al-Qaeda was never able to regain its status as the pre-eminent terrorist organization after bin Laden's death, and faced newer, more brutal, rivals, such as the Islamic State.

Zawahiri, an Egyptian surgeon who had a $25 million bounty on his head, helped coordinate the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.

US officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the United States carried out a drone strike in the Afghan capital Kabul at 6:18 a.m. (0148 GMT) on Sunday.

“Now justice has been delivered, and this terrorist leader is no more,” Biden, who is recovering from COVID-19, said in remarks from the White House. “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.”

US intelligence determined with “high confidence” through multiple intelligence streams that the man killed was Zawahiri, one senior administration official told reporters. He was killed on the balcony of a “safe house” in Kabul that he shared with other members of his family. There were no other casualties.

“Zawahiri continued to pose an active threat to U.S.  persons, interests and national security,” the official said on a conference call. “His death deals a significant blow to al Qaeda and will degrade the group’s ability to operate.”

There were rumors of Zawahiri’s death several times in recent years, and he was long reported to have been in poor health.

Taliban condemnation

The drone attack is the first known US strike inside Afghanistan since US troops and diplomats left the country in August 2021. The move may bolster the credibility of Washington’s assurances that the United States can still address threats from Afghanistan without a military presence in the country.

His death also raises questions about whether Zawahiri received sanctuary from the Taliban following their takeover of Kabul in August 2021. The official said senior Taliban officials were aware of his presence in the city and said the United States expected the Taliban to abide by an agreement not to allow al Qaeda fighters to re-establish themselves in the country.

“The Taliban will have to answer for al-Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul, after assuring the world they would not give safe haven to al-Qaeda terrorists,” Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a statement.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed that a strike took place and strongly condemned it, calling it a violation of “international principles.”

Zawahiri succeeded bin Laden as al Qaeda leader after years as its main organizer and strategist, but his lack of charisma and competition from rival militants Islamic State hobbled his ability to inspire devastating attacks on the West.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers lauded the operation.

“The world is safer without him in it and this strike demonstrates our ongoing commitment to hunt down all terrorists responsible for 9/11 and those who continue to pose a threat to US interests,” said Republican US Senator Marco Rubio.

Until the US announcement, Zawahiri had been rumo ured variously to be in Pakistan’s tribal areas or inside Afghanistan.

A video released in April in which he praised an Indian Muslim woman for defying a ban on wearing an Islamic head scarf dispelled rumours that he had died.

How the CIA identified and killed Zawahiri

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed in a US strike in Afghanistan over the weekend, the biggest blow to the militant group since its founder Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011.

Zawahiri had been in hiding for years and the operation to locate and kill him was the result of "careful patient and persistent" work by the counter-terrorism and intelligence community, a senior administration official told reporters.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the official provided the following details on the operation:

* For several years, the U.S. government had been aware of a network that it assessed supported Zawahiri, and over the past year, following the United States' withdrawal from Afghanistan, officials had been watching for indications of Al Qaeda's presence in the country.

This year, officials identified that Zawahiri's family - his wife, his daughter and her children - had relocated to a safe house in Kabul and subsequently identified Zawahiri at the same location.

* Over several months, intelligence officials grew more confident that they had correctly identified Zawahiri at the Kabul safe house and in early April started briefing senior administration officials. Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor, subsequently briefed President Joe Biden.

"We were able to build a pattern of life through multiple independent sources of information to inform the operation," the official said.

Once Zawahiri arrived at the Kabul safehouse, officials were not aware of him leaving it and they identified him on its balcony - where he was ultimately struck - on multiple occasions, the official said.

* Officials investigated the construction and nature of the safe house and scrutinized its occupants to ensure the United States could confidently conduct an operation to kill Zawahiri without threatening the structural integrity of the building and minimizing the risk to civilians and Zawahiri's family, the official said.

* In recent weeks, the president convened meetings with key advisors and Cabinet members to scrutinize the intelligence and evaluate the best course of action. On July 1, Biden was briefed on a proposed operation in the White House Situation Room by members of his cabinet including CIA Director William Burns

Biden "asked detailed questions about what we knew and how we knew it" and closely examined a model of the safe house the intelligence community had built and brought to the meeting.

He asked about lighting, weather, construction materials, and other factors that could affect the success of the operation, the official said. The president also requested analysis of the potential ramifications of a strike in Kabul.

* A tight circle of senior inter-agency lawyers examined the intelligence reporting and confirmed that Zawahiri was a lawful target based on his continuing leadership of Al Qaeda.

On July 25, the president convened his key Cabinet members and advisors to receive a final briefing and discuss how killing Zawahiri would affect America's relationship with the Taliban, among other issues, the official said. After soliciting views from others in the room, Biden authorized "a precise tailored air strike" on the condition that it minimize the risk of civilian casualties.

* The strike was ultimately carried out at 9:48 p.m. ET (0148 GMT) on July 30 by a drone firing so-called "hellfire" missiles.

From Cairo clinic to Qaeda leader

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was the group’s key ideologue and strategist, masterminding its global network and planning attacks on the United States.

The 71-year-old Egyptian eye doctor had central roles in the attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the 9/11 attacks on the Washington DC and New York City, where nearly 3,000 people were killed.

He was named as the group’s leader two months after founder Osama Bin Laden was killed by the US in 2011.

While Bin Laden came from a privileged background in a prominent Saudi family, al-Zawahiri had the experience of an underground revolutionary. Bin Laden provided al-Qaeda with charisma and money, but it was al-Zawahiri who brought tactics and organisational skills.

“Bin Laden always looked up to him,” Bruce Hoffman, a professor and expert in security studies at Georgetown University, told the Associated Press news agency.

A TV grab from Al Jazeera shows Ayman al-Zawahiri (left) walking with the group’s founder Osama Bin Laden in 2003. Bin Laden was killed by the US in 2011 after a raid on his hideout in Pakistan [Al Jazeera via AFP]

Al-Zawahiri first rose to prominence when he stood in a courtroom cage after the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981.

“We have sacrificed and we are still ready for more sacrifices until the victory of Islam,” shouted al-Zawahiri, wearing a white robe, as fellow defendants enraged by Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel chanted slogans.

Al-Zawahiri served a three-year jail term for illegal arms possession but was acquitted of the main charges in the assassination.

A trained surgeon — one of his pseudonyms was The Doctor — al-Zawahiri went to Pakistan on his release where he worked with the Red Crescent treating mujahideen fighters wounded in Afghanistan battling Soviet forces.

That was when he became acquainted with bin Laden, who had joined the Afghan resistance.

Taking over the leadership of Islamic Jihad in Egypt in 1993, al-Zawahiri was a leading figure in a campaign in the mid-1990s to overthrow the government and set up a purist Islamic state in which more than 1,200 Egyptians were killed.

Egyptian authorities mounted a crackdown on Islamic Jihad after an assassination attempt on President Hosni Mubarak in June of 1995 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

The greying, white-turbaned al-Zawahiri responded by ordering a 1995 attack on the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. Two cars filled with explosives rammed through the compound’s gates, killing 16 people.

He was also linked to the attacks on foreign tourists in the city of Luxor, Egypt, in 1997, which left 62 people dead.

In 1999, an Egyptian military court sentenced al-Zawahiri to death in absentia.

By then, he was already helping Bin Laden to form al-Qaeda and for years was believed to be hiding along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In a eulogy for Bin Laden, al-Zawahiri promised to continue attacks on the West, recalling the threat of the group’s founder that “you will not dream of security until we live it as a reality and until you leave the lands of the Muslims”.

But he watched in dismay as al-Qaeda was effectively sidelined by the 2011 Arab revolts, launched mainly by middle-class activists and intellectuals opposed to decades of autocracy, and as the emergence of the ISIL (ISIS) group in 2014-2019 in Iraq and Syria drew global attention.

Born in 1951 to a prominent Cairo family, al-Zawahiri was a grandson of the grand imam of Al Azhar, one of Islam’s most important mosques.

He was brought up in Cairo’s leafy Maadi suburb, a place favoured by expatriates from the Western nations he railed against.

The son of a pharmacology professor, al-Zawahiri was reportedly arrested at 15 for joining the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. He also found inspiration in the revolutionary ideas of Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb, who was executed in 1966 on charges of trying to overthrow the state.

People who studied with al-Zawahiri at Cairo University’s Faculty of Medicine in the 1970s describe a lively young man who went to the cinema, listened to music and joked with friends.

“When he came out of prison he was a completely different person,” said a doctor who studied with al-Zawahiri and declined to be named.–Agencies