Ayman al-Zawahiri, the elusive al-Qaeda leader who played a key role in the September 11, 2001 attacks and took over the transnational terror franchise after the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011, was killed Sunday morning in an American drone strike in Kabul.
The years-long operation launched by the CIA marked the first US attack in Afghanistan since the departure of US forces a year ago and represents a key victory for the Biden administration, which has pledged to stay abreast of terrorist threats within the country. war-torn country after the chaotic withdrawal.
Zawahiri’s death ends one of the CIA’s longest-running manhunts since 9/11 and, to date, one of the agency’s most puzzling targets. Over the years, Zawahiri has become as synonymous with al-Qaeda as bin Laden. According to administration officials, Zawahiri was still at the head of al-Qaeda, issuing orders until his death.
The administration began moving forward with its plan to strike Zawahiri, 71, in April after intelligence said he had moved into a shelter with his wife, daughter and grandchildren. Four months later, two missiles slammed into Zawahiri’s hideout as he stood outside on the balcony taking in the morning air, according to a senior administration official.
The assassination marks the end of an era for the shadow group, which has shown resilience despite more than two decades of war. US intelligence estimates that there are only a few hundred core members of al-Qaeda left, most of them living in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, whose leadership ranks are decimated. Its global reach, however, persists with thousands of members in affiliated organizations, such as al-Shabab in Somalia, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Algeria, and others.
“Now justice has been served,” President Biden said Monday evening, speaking from the South Balcony of the White House. With the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial framed behind him, Biden used the opportunity to unambiguously threaten members of any terrorist group planning attacks on Americans. “We make it clear again tonight that no matter how long it takes, no matter where you are hiding, if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and eliminate you,” Biden said.
The deadly attack was a test of Biden’s promise last year that the United States would be able to continue targeting al-Qaeda operatives who had been plotting attacks inside Afghanistan for “de across the horizon,” even after the United States withdrew thousands of forces from the country. “It can’t be a launching pad against the United States — we’re going to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Biden said Monday night.
Now the United States will seek to determine what assistance Zawahiri received from the Taliban government while in hiding in Afghanistan’s capital and largest city, and whether the new government in Kabul knew about it. Zawahiri’s activities and helped him in any way. .
The road to Zawahiri’s disappearance began several years ago when the US government uncovered a terrorist network it believed was hiding the al-Qaeda leader and his family, the senior official said. Then last year, US intelligence began watching for signs that he might let his guard down with the re-emergence of the ruling Taliban in Afghanistan. “This year we have identified the Zawahiri family, his wife, daughter and children have been transferred to a safe house in Kabul,” the official said. “Zawahiri’s family has been in a long-standing terrorist trade which we believe was designed to prevent anyone from following them to Zawahiri. For several months, we gained confidence while he was present at the Kabul site, and we got insight into the other people present at the site and their activity. »
Throughout this year, the United States has worked to build a “model of life”, which relies on months of intelligence gathering from various intelligence sources, including aerial surveillance and captured communications conversations. . The tactic has been honed over decades in America’s counterterrorism approach and is now a key part of the administration’s “beyond the horizon” approach. In the absence of a US presence in Afghanistan, the US now flies drones from the Gulf, mostly via al-Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates, on long missions veering around Iran and to through Pakistan.
“Once al-Zawahiri arrived at the scene, we don’t know that he ever left the safe house,” the official said. Senior Taliban and Haqqani Network officials, another militant group that staged deadly attacks on US and coalition troops, were aware of al-Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul, the official said.
US intelligence observed Zawahiri and also investigated the construction and nature of the hideout, so that “we can confidently conduct an operation to kill him” without threatening the structural integrity of the building and while minimizing harm. risk to his family and nearby civilians, the official said. “We have assembled a team of independent analysts to review all of the data surrounding the identity of the occupants of the safe house,” the official said.
A core group of intelligence agency officials was brought into the process from April. On July 1, Biden was briefed on a proposed operation in the White House Situation Room by key members of his cabinet, including CIA Director William Burns, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, Director of National Counterterrorism Center Christine Abizaid and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.
A model of the house was built to guide the president through the operation. Biden was concerned about the potential for civilian casualties, as previous strikes had proven disastrous due to faulty intelligence. “He asked for explanations of lighting, weather, construction materials and other factors that could influence the success of this operation and reduce the risk of civilian casualties,” the official said.
On July 25, Biden convened cabinet members and advisers for a final intelligence assessment briefing. At the end of the meeting, he authorized a drone strike. The authorization meant that the US government could carry out the strike as soon as an opportunity arose.
After Sunday morning’s strike, Zawahiri’s wife, daughter and grandchildren could be seen fleeing the house, the official said. The administration says no civilians were killed.
“The shelter used by Zawahiri is now empty, and Haqqani-Taliban members moved quickly to move Zawahiri’s family to another location, in line with a larger effort to conceal that they were living in the shelter,” said the manager.
Zawahiri was an Egyptian doctor who joined his first jihadist cell as a teenager. He founded Egyptian Islamic Jihad in 1979. The group is best known for its 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. In the late 1980s, Zawahiri was treating wounded mujahideen fighters from the Afghan-Soviet war when he met the young Saudi millionaire bin Laden. The lifelong friendship began as an interdependent relationship. Bin Laden funded Zawahiri and his organization, before helping him launch and build al-Qaeda.
In 2014, after bin Laden’s death, Zawahiri was responsible for al-Qaeda’s much-publicized break with ISIS, when he became angry with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, then leader of al- Qaeda in Iraq, which had spread to the Syrian conflict. and attempted to bring the local al-Qaeda franchise, the al-Nusra Front, under its control. Zawahiri urged Baghdadi to return to Iraq, but Baghdadi refused, abruptly returning in a terse audio recording. “I have to choose between God’s rule and Zawahiri’s rule, and I choose God’s rule.” It was a rare display of defiance in an organization that demands absolute loyalty.
In his brief address to the American people on Monday night, Biden said Zawahiri’s death showed that American intelligence never gives up. “They never forget,” Biden said, “it was through their extraordinary perseverance and skill that this operation was a success.”
“Here I am now,” Biden added. “We will always remain vigilant and we will act.”
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