yman al-Zawahiri, the elusive leader of al-Qaeda who played a key role in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and took over the transnational terrorist franchise following Osama bin Laden’s death in 2011, was killed in a U.S. drone strike Sunday morning in Kabul.
This operation was years in preparation and launched by CIA. It marked the first U.S. military attack on Afghanistan in a year. The victory is a major win for the Biden administration, who pledged to keep an eye out for terrorist threats in Afghanistan after their chaotic withdrawal.
Zawahiri’s death brings to a close one of the CIA’s longest-standing manhunts since Sept. 11, and, until now, one of the agency’s most confounding targets. Zawahiri has been as associated with al-Qaeda and Bin Laden over the years. Officials from the administration claim Zawahiri was responsible for al-Qaeda’s operations, issuing commands right up until Zawahiri’s death.
After intelligence showed Zawahiri had moved into a safehouse, the administration started to move forward with plans to attack Zawahiri (71). Four months later, two missiles slammed into Zawahiri’s safehouse as he stood outside on the balcony taking in the morning air, according to a senior administration official.
Assassination signifies the end for an era of resistance by this shadowy group that has survived more than 20 years of war. U.S. intelligence believes that only a handful of core al-Qaeda members are still alive, the majority living in Afghanistan-Pakistan, where its leadership ranks have been decimated. However, its global reach is not lost. It has thousands of affiliate members such as al-Shabab, al-Qaeda, the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen and al-Qaeda, the Islamic Maghreb, Algeria and many others.
“Now, justice has been delivered,” said President Biden Monday night, speaking on the south balcony of the White House. Biden stood behind the Jefferson Memorial and Washington Monument, making a direct threat to terrorist groups that plan to attack Americans. “We make it clear again tonight 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.
The deadly strike was a test of Biden’s promise last year that the U.S. would be able to continue targeting al-Qaeda operatives plotting attacks inside Afghanistan from “over the horizon,” even after the U.S. withdrew thousands of forces from the country. “It can’t be a launching pad against the United States—we’re going to see to it that won’t happen,” Biden said Monday night.
Now the U.S. will be looking to determine just how much assistance Zawahiri got from the Taliban government while he was hiding out in Afghanistan’s capital and largest city, and assess whether the new government in Kabul was aware of Zawahiri’s activities and was assisting him in any way.
The path to Zawahiri’s demise began several years ago when the U.S. government picked up on a terror network it believed was concealing the al-Qaeda leader and his family, the senior official said. Then last year, U.S. intelligence began watching for indications that he may let his guard down with the Taliban’s reemergence to power in Afghanistan. “This year, we identified as the Zawahiri family, his wife, his daughter and her children relocated to a safe-house in Kabul,” the official said. “Zawahiri’s family exercised long-standing terrorist tradecraft that we assess was designed to prevent anyone from following them to Zawahiri. Over several months, we increased our confidence while he was present at the location in Kabul, and we gained insight on others present at the location and their activity.”
Throughout this year, the U.S. worked to build a “pattern of life,” which relies on gathering intelligence for months from various intelligence sources, including airborne surveillance and captured communications chatter. The tactic has been honed over decades in the U.S. counterterrorism approach and is now a key element of the administration’s “over-the-horizon” approach. The U.S. has no presence in Afghanistan and is flying drones out of the Gulf via al-Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates. These long flights take them around Iran and Pakistan.
“Once al-Zawahiri arrived at the location, we are not aware of him ever leaving the safe house,” the official said. Senior officials in the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, another militant group that has staged deadly attacks on U.S. and coalition troops, were aware of al-Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul, the official said.
U.S. intelligence observed Zawahiri and also investigated the construction and nature of the safe-house, so that “we could confidently conduct an operation to kill” him without threatening the structural integrity of the building and while minimizing the risk to his family and nearby civilians, the official said. “We convened a team of independent analysts to review all data surrounding the identity of the occupants of the safe house,” the official said.
In April, an elite group of representatives from intelligence agencies was brought in to the discussion. Key members of Biden’s cabinet, including Director William Burns of the CIA, Director Avril Haines of National Intelligence, Christine Abizaid, National Counterterrorism Center Director Christine Abizaid, and Jake Sullivan, National Security Adviser, were briefed by Biden on July 1 about a planned operation in White House Situation Room.
To help the President navigate the operation, a model of the house was created. Biden expressed concern about the possibility of civilian casualties after previous strikes that were unsuccessful due to faulty intelligence had resulted in catastrophic results. “He sought explanations of lighting, of weather, of construction materials, and other factors that could influence the success of this operation and reduce the risk of civilian casualties,” the official said.
Biden met with cabinet members and advisers on July 25 to give a last briefing about the intelligence assessment. He authorized the use of drones in the final briefing. In other words, the authorization gave the U.S. government the right to strike when it became possible.
After the strike Sunday morning, Zawahiri’s wife, daughter and grandchildren could be seen fleeing the home, the official said. According to the administration, no civilians were hurt.
The safehouse used by Zawahiri is now empty, and Haqqani-Taliban members acted quickly to remove Zawahiri’s family to another location, consistent with a broader effort to cover-up that they had been living in the safe-house,” the official said.
Zawahiri was an Egyptian surgeon who became a jihadist in his teens. The Egyptian Islamic Jihad was founded by Zawahiri in 1979. This group is best known for the 1981 assassination by Anwar Sadat, Egyptian president. Zawahiri met bin Laden, the younger Saudi millionaire. He was treating injured mujahideen combatants from Afghanistan-Soviet war in the late 1980s. As an interdependent relationship, the lifelong friendship was born. Bin Laden funded Zawahiri’s organization and helped him to launch al-Qaeda.
In 2014, after bin Laden’s death, Zawahiri was responsible for al-Qaeda’s high-profile break with ISIS, when he grew angry with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, then-head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, who had expanded into the Syrian conflict and tried to bring the local al-Qaeda franchise, al-Nusra Front, under his control. Zawahiri warned Baghdadi not to return to Iraq and Baghdadi responded in an audio recording. “I have to choose between the rule of God and the rule of Zawahiri, and I choose the rule of God.” It was a rare demonstration of defiance in an organization that demands absolute loyalty.
In his short speech to the American people Monday night, Biden said Zawahiri’s death showed that U.S. intelligence services never give up. “They never forget,” Biden said “It is thanks to their extraordinary persistence and skill that this operation was a success.”
“Here me now,” Biden added. “We will always remain vigilant and we will act.”
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