A U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan this weekend killed Ayman al-Zawahri, who took over as al-Qaeda leader after Osama bin Laden’s death in a U.S. raid. President Joe Biden was set to announce the killing Monday, delivering a significant counterterrorism win just 11 months after American troops left the country following a two-decade war.
The strike, carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency, was confirmed by five people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity before Biden was set to brief the American people on the details of the operation in a 7:30 p.m. ET address to the nation.
Current and former officials began hearing Sunday afternoon that al-Zawahri had been killed in a drone strike, but the administration delayed releasing the information until his death could be confirmed, according to one person.
White House officials declined to confirm al-Zawahri was killed but noted in a statement that the United States conducted a “successful” counterterrorism operation against a significant al-Qaeda target, adding that “there were no civilian casualties.”
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.
Bin Laden deputy shaped al-Qaeda
The death of al-Zawahri eliminates the figure that shaped al-Qaeda more than anyone, first as bin Laden’s deputy since 1998, then as his successor.
Together, the two turned the jihadi movement’s guns to target the United States, carrying out the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — the deadliest ever on American soil.
The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon made bin Laden Enemy No. 1 in the U.S., but he likely could never have carried it out without his deputy, who brought the tactics and organizational skills needed to forge militants into a network of cells in countries around the world.
The bond between the two was forged in the late 1980s, when al-Zawahri reportedly treated the Saudi millionaire 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 US bounty on his head for any information that could be used to kill or capture him.
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Photos from the time of the 9/11 attacks often showed the glasses-wearing Egyptian doctor sitting by bin Laden’s side. Al-Zawahri 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 to be un-Islamic and their patrons, especially the United States,” Steven A. Cook wrote for the Council on Foreign Relations last year.
Speaking on Aug. 31, 2021, after the last U.S. troops left Afghanistan, Biden said the U.S. would not let up on its fight against terrorism in that country or elsewhere.
“We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries,” he said. “We just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it.”
Previewing the strike that would occur 11 months later, Biden said at the time, “We have what’s called over-the-horizon capabilities, which means we can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground — or very few, if needed.”
There have been rumours of al-Zawahri’s death on and off for several years. But a video surfaced in April of the al-Qaeda leader praising a Indian Muslim woman who had defied a ban on wearing a hijab, or headscarf. That footage was the first proof in months that he was still alive.
A statement from Afghanistan’s Taliban government confirmed the airstrike, but did not mention al-Zawahri or any other casualties.
It said it “strongly condemns this attack and calls it a clear violation of international principles and the Doha Agreement,” the 2020 U.S. pact with the Taliban that led to the withdrawal of American forces.
“Such actions are a repetition of the failed experiences of the past 20 years and are against the interests of the United States of America, Afghanistan, and the region,” the statement said.