WASHINGTON (AP) — A U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan over the weekend killed Ayman al-Zawahri, who took over as head of al-Qaeda after Osama bin Laden was killed in a U.S. raid. President Joe Biden was due to announce the killing on Monday, delivering a significant victory in the fight against terrorism just 11 months after US 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 condition of anonymity before Biden was tasked with briefing the American people on the details of the operation in an address by 7:30 p.m. EDT. 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 that al-Zawahri was killed, but noted in a statement that the United States conducted a “successful” counterterrorism operation against a key al-Qaeda target, adding that “There were no civilian casualties”.
The house Al-Zawahri was in when he was killed belonged to a 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 attack confirmed al-Zawahri’s death. Planning for the operation began six months ago but has intensified in the past two months, the official said.
The loss of Al-Zawahri eliminates the figure who more than anyone has shaped al-Qaeda, first as Osama bin Laden’s deputy since 1998, then as his successor. Together, he and bin Laden diverted the weapons of the jihadist movement to target the United States, carrying out the deadliest attack ever on American soil – the suicide bombings of September 11, 2001.
The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon made bin Laden America’s No. 1 enemy. But he probably wouldn’t have been able to do it without his deputy. Bin Laden provided al-Qaeda with charisma and money, but al-Zawahri brought the tactics and organizational skills needed to forge militants into a network of cells in countries around the world.
Their bond was forged in the late 1980s, when al-Zawahri reportedly treated Saudi millionaire bin Laden in caves in Afghanistan as Soviet bombardment shook the mountains around them.
Zawahri, on the FBI’s most wanted terrorists list, had a $25 million bounty on his head for any information that could be used to kill or capture him.
Biden planned to speak from the White House’s Blue Room balcony as he remains isolated in the residence as he continues to test positive for COVID-19.
Al-Zawhiri and bin Laden plotted the September 11 attacks that brought many ordinary Americans their first knowledge of al-Qaeda.
Photos from the time often showed the bespectacled, mild-looking Egyptian doctor sitting next to bin Laden. Al-Zawahiri had merged his group of Egyptian militants with Bin Laden’s Al-Qaida 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 un-Islamic and their patrons, particularly the United States” , wrote Steven A. Cook for the Council on Foreign Relations last year.
When the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 demolished al-Qaeda’s haven and dispersed, killed and captured its members, al-Zawahri ensured al-Qaeda’s survival. He rebuilt his leadership in the Afghan-Pakistan border region and installed allies as lieutenants in key positions.
He also reshaped the organization from a centralized terrorist attack planner to the head of a franchise chain. He led the assembly of a network of self-sustaining branches throughout the region, including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, North Africa, Somalia, Yemen and Asia. Over the next decade, al-Qaida inspired or directly participated in attacks in all of these regions as well as in Europe, Pakistan and Turkey, including the 2004 Madrid train bombings and the bombings in a London transit in 2005.
More recently, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen has shown itself capable of planning attacks on American soil with an attempted bombing of an American airliner in 2009 and an attempted package bomb l ‘Next year.
But even before bin Laden’s death, al-Zawahri was struggling to maintain al-Qaida’s relevance in a changing Middle East.
He tried without much success to co-opt the wave of uprisings that swept across the Arab world from 2011, urging Islamic hardliners to pick up the slack in countries where leaders had fallen. But while the Islamists have risen to prominence in many places, they have deep ideological differences with al-Qaeda and reject its agenda and leadership.
Nevertheless, al-Zawahri attempted to portray himself as the leader of the Arab Spring. America “is facing an Islamic nation that is in revolt, that has gone from lethargy to a revival of jihad,” he said in a video eulogy to bin Laden, dressed in a white robe and in a turban with an assault rifle leaning on a wall behind him. .
Al-Zawahri was also a more controversial figure than his predecessor. Many activists have described the soft-spoken bin Laden in adoring and almost spiritual terms.
By contrast, al-Zawahri was notoriously pungent and pedantic. He picked ideological fights with critics within the jihadist camp, waving his finger in reprimanding fashion in his videos. Even some key figures in al-Qaeda’s central leadership have been pushed back, calling it too controlling, secretive and divisive.
Some activists whose association with bin Laden predates that of al-Zawahri have always viewed him as an arrogant intruder.
“I never received orders from al-Zawahri,” sneered Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, one of the network’s leading figures in East Africa until his death in 2011, in a memoir released online in 2009. our historical leadership.
Speaking on August 31, 2021, after the last US troops left Afghanistan, Biden said the United States would not relax its fight against terrorism there 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 that.” Anticipating the strike that would occur 11 months later, Biden said at the time, “We have what are called over-the-horizon capabilities, which means we can hit terrorists and targets without American boots at the soil – or very little, if necessary. ”
There have been rumors of al-Zawahri’s death for several years. But a video surfaced in April of the al-Qaeda leader praising an Indian Muslim woman who defied a ban on wearing a hijab or headscarf. This footage was the first proof in months that he was still alive.
A statement from the Afghan Taliban government confirmed the airstrike, but did not mention al-Zawahri or any other casualties.
He said he “strongly condemns this attack and calls it a clear violation of international principles and the Doha Agreement,” the 2020 US pact with the Taliban that led to the withdrawal of US forces.
“Such actions are a repeat of the failed experiments of the past 20 years and run counter to the interests of the United States of America, Afghanistan and the region,” the statement said.
Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor, Ellen Knickmeyer, Zeke Miller, Aamer Madhani and Darlene Superville in Washington; Rahim Faiez in Islamabad; and Lee Keath in Cairo contributed reporting.
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