US kills al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri in drone strike

In a speech announcing the operation, President Joe Biden said he had given final approval to kill Zawahri, who was still planning attacks on the United States and its allies. “Justice has been served, and this terrorist leader is no more,” he added. Minutes before this speech, a senior administration official told reporters how Zawahri had been hunted down, found and then killed.

“This year, we identified that Zawahri’s family – his wife, daughter and children – moved to a safe house in Kabul,” the official said. “We then identified Zawahri on the spot in Kabul by overlaying multiple intelligence feeds.” The terrorist leader’s habit of standing on his balcony allowed the United States to observe him and confirm his identity.

“The president received updates on the development of the goal in May and June, the senior official said, and on July 1, Biden received a briefing on a proposed operation while in the city. White House Situation Room. CIA Director William Burns, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, among others, were present at the meeting.

“The strike was ultimately carried out at 9:48 p.m. Eastern Time on July 30 by an unmanned aerial vehicle. Two infernal missiles were fired at Zawahri… Only Zawahri was killed in the attack,” the official said, saying there was no evidence of any other loss of life.

Zawahri was an Egyptian who took control of al-Qaeda after the United States killed its longtime leader bin Laden in 2011. A doctor, he founded Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a militant group that merged with al -Qaeda in the late 1990s. He had been indicted for his alleged role in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.

The announcement comes nearly a year after the United States completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan, the country it invaded in 2001 following the September 11 attacks orchestrated by bin Laden.

The pullout turned into a chaotic one – and one of Biden’s worst spells as president – as the United States was forced into a major evacuation of more than 100,000 people trying to flee the country after a surprisingly quick takeover by Taliban militants. The United States has insisted that the Taliban not allow the use of Afghan soil by terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, raising questions about what Zawahri’s presence in Kabul says about ties between the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

The operation is the first US strike in Kabul in nearly a year, when a US drone mistakenly killed an innocent aid worker and nine members of his family just days before the US military withdrew from Afghanistan . US Central Command ordered the August 29 strike based on intelligence that the aid worker was a member of the Afghan branch of Islamic State and was planning an “imminent” attack on Hamid Karzai International Airport, the official said. General Frank McKenzie, then head of CENTCOM, to reporters. Last year.

Zawahri’s murder gives the administration some good news to announce before a grim anniversary. It also reinforces the US claim that it still has what it calls an “over the horizon” intelligence capability on terrorist activities in Afghanistan, despite not having more combat troops there.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has been briefed on the strike, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told POLITICO. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the operation a “significant achievement”, adding “this strike should be a message to terrorists near and far: if you conspire to kill Americans, we will find and kill you”. .”

“The attack that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahri is a major success for US counterterrorism efforts. The result of countless hours of intelligence gathering over many years,” said Mick Mulroy, a former Pentagon official and retired CIA paramilitary operations officer.

Calling the killing a “historic operation,” former senior Obama administration official Ben Rhodes told POLITICO it “also demonstrates that Biden did not need to keep troops in Afghanistan to maintain a capability. in the fight against terrorism”.

A South Asian official, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, said he was shocked that Zawahri was “wandering in Kabul”.

For years, terrorism researchers and others believed Zawahri was likely hiding in Pakistan – where bin Laden was found. Some observers thought Zawahri was potentially somewhere in the bustling Pakistani city of Karachi.

For the Biden administration, “this [strike] will deflect a bit from issues such as how the pullout from Afghanistan was a disaster and the diminished capability of the United States on the counterterrorism front,” the South Asian official said.

However, a congressional aide noted that al-Qaeda is still a powerful force in Afghanistan, even without Zawahri.

“While it is great that they have one of hundreds of al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan, the Taliban regime that the Biden administration brought to power is home to senior al-Qaeda leaders in downtown Kabul,” the person said. “The Biden administration is paying millions for this same regime.”

It was not immediately clear who would succeed Zawahri as head of the terror group.

In December 2020, Brookings Institution terrorism expert Daniel Byman said one of the big questions for his leadership was how he would hand over control to the next al-Qaeda leader. “At this time, there is no obvious successor with Zawahri’s wide recognition and respect within the jihadist world,” he wrote, adding, “Any successor will also benefit from the decline of the Islamic State, which is much weaker and less inspiring now that it has lost the caliphate.

At least one figure has been mentioned as a potential successor: an Egyptian who goes by the nom de guerre Saif al-Adl. The experienced jihadist is said to have spent a lot of time in Iran, with his movements often restricted.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted monday that “an airstrike was carried out on a residential house in the Sherpur district of Kabul city”.

Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States who is now with the Hudson Institute, said a “question now would be whether the Taliban allowed the elimination of Zawahri or whether the United States did without help”.

Andrew Desiderio contributed reporting.

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