A CIA drone strike has killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan, according to five people familiar with the matter.
Current and former officials began hearing Sunday afternoon that al-Zawahiri had been killed in a drone strike, but the administration delayed releasing the information until his death could be confirmed, according to one person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter.
White House officials declined to confirm al-Zawahiri 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.”
Long sought ‘justice’: Biden
President Joe Biden said in an evening address on August 1 from the White House that U.S. intelligence officials tracked al-Zawahiri 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 on Sunday.
Al-Zawahiri 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.
“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,” Mr. Biden said.
“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 Central Intelligence Agency, according to five people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Neither Mr. Biden nor the White House detailed the CIA’s involvement in the strike.
Mr. 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.”
Elimination of a key figure
Al-Zawahiri’s loss 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 September 11 suicide hijackings.
The house Al-Zawahiri 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-Zawahiri’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.
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-Zawahiri brought tactics and organisational 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-Zawahiri dodge U.S. intelligence officials hunting for him, but did not have a bead 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-Zawahiri was also at the Kabul safe house.