He never achieved the household name status of his predecessor, but the killing of al-Zawahri is nonetheless a major victory for the United States in the ongoing fight against Islamist terrorism, especially as the Nations United warn that the terrorist group overtakes its peers – such as the Islamic State – as a long-term global threat.
In a statement to reporters, a senior Biden administration official said “over the weekend, the United States conducted a counterterrorism operation against a significant al-Qaeda target in Afghanistan. The operation was a success and there were no civilian casualties.
President Joe Biden is due to deliver a speech on the operation later Monday.
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 Afghan soil to be used by terrorist groups like al-Qaeda.
Al-Zawahiri’s murder gives the administration some good news to announce before a grim anniversary.
Colonel Joseph Buccino, spokesman for US Central Command, declined to comment on the details of the strike. “We don’t have any operational information at this time,” he said.
A Pentagon spokesman said the military had not recently carried out any strikes in the area. The National Security Council declined to comment.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has been briefed on the strike, Sen. blonde frame (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.”
Al-Zawahri’s presence in Kabul is likely to sour relations between Washington and the Taliban, but it also bolsters the US claim that it still has what it calls “beyond the horizon” in intelligence on terrorist activities in Afghanistan – despite none having more combat troops there.
“The strike that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri 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 subject, said he was shocked that al-Zawahri was “wandering around Kabul”.
For years, terrorism researchers and others believed al-Zawahri was hiding in Pakistan – where bin Laden was found. Some observers thought al-Zawahri was probably 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 strong force in Afghanistan, even without al-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.”
Al-Zawahri, a doctor, 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.
It was not immediately clear who would succeed al-Zawahri as head of the terror group.
In December 2020, Brookings Institution terrorism expert Daniel Byman said one of the big questions of his leadership was how he would hand over control to his successor. “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.
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 Zawahiri or whether the United States did without help”.
Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.