Al Qaeda’s emir al-Zawahiri killed in Kabul by US drone

Updated on Aug 03, 2022 01:54 AM IST

A United States drone strike killed Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri at a Kabul hideout, officials in Washington said, in what is the biggest blow to the militants since former chief Osama bin Laden was shot dead in Pakistan over a decade ago.

 (via REUTERS)
By, Washington

A United States drone strike killed Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri at a Kabul hideout, officials in Washington said, in what is the biggest blow to the militants since former chief Osama bin Laden was shot dead in Pakistan over a decade ago.

While Afghanistan’s Taliban government has not confirmed, but condemned, al-Zawahiri’s death, US President Joe Biden declared “justice had been delivered” to the families of the victims of 9/11 attacks.

It was the first known over-the-horizon strike by the US on a target in Afghanistan since Washington withdrew its forces from the country on August 31 last year, days after the Taliban swept back to power.

“Justice has been delivered and this terrorist leader is no more,” Biden said in a sombre televised address, adding he hoped al-Zawahiri’s death would bring “closure” to families of the 3,000 people killed in the US on September 11, 2001. “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,” he added.

Al-Zawahiri was believed to be the mastermind who steered Al Qaeda’s operations — including the 9/11 attacks.

Also read: Ayman al-Zawahiri killed, Saif al-Adel likely to be al-Qaeda's next chief: 5 points about him

The 71-year-old was killed while he stood on the balcony of his three-storey safe house in Afghan capital Kabul at 6.18am on Sunday, US officials said. The militant leader was targeted with two missiles that appeared to leave the same footprint and impact that US Hellfire missiles have done in previous drone strikes.

The house is in Sherpur, one of Kabul’s most affluent neighbourhoods, with several villas occupied by high-ranking Taliban officials and commanders.

Biden said he authorised the precision strike after months of planning and that no civilians or family members were killed.

“We identified Zawahiri on multiple occasions for sustained periods of time on the balcony where he was ultimately struck,” a senior government official said, asking not to be named.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid previously confirmed that a strike took place in Kabul on Sunday and called it a violation of “international principles”.

A spokesperson for the interior ministry said a house was hit by a rocket in Sherpur, a leafy residential neighbourhood in the centre of the city. “There were no casualties as the house was empty,” Abdul Nafi Takor, the spokesperson, said.

White House spokesman John Kirby said the US did not have DNA confirmation of Zawahiri’s death. “We’re not going to get that confirmation,” he said on CNN, describing “visual confirmation” along with other sources.

An official said that the US intelligence determined with “high confidence” that Zawahiri was killed.

Kirby also said there was a small Al Qaeda presence remaining in Afghanistan. “We are still going to stay vigilant, we’re still going to stay capable,” Kirby told MSNBC, adding that the US had the capability to conduct a counterterrorism strike from afar.

“The message has been very, very clearly sent not just to al Qaeda, but to anybody that might harbour them.”

Zawahiri’s death raises questions about whether he received sanctuary from the Taliban following their takeover of Kabul.

The senior US administration official said senior Taliban officials were aware of his presence in the city, and said the US expected the Taliban to abide by an agreement not to allow Al Qaeda fighters to re-establish themselves in the country.

Although Biden did not mention the Taliban in his televised address, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said “by hosting and sheltering” Zawahiri, the Islamist group had “grossly violated the Doha Agreement” which paved the way for America’s withdrawal.

Zabihullah, in turn, accused Washington of breaking the 2020 deal. “Such actions are a repetition of the failed experiences of the past 20 years and are against the interests of the United States of America, Afghanistan, and the region,” he said.

Under the Doha deal, the Taliban promised not to allow Afghanistan to be used again as a launchpad for international terrorism, but experts believe the group never broke ties with Al Qaeda.

“What we know is that the senior Haqqani Taliban were aware of his presence in Kabul,” the unnamed US official cited above said.

Afghan interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani also heads the Haqqani Network, a brutal subset of the Taliban blamed for some of the worst violence of the past 20 years and which has been described by US officials as a “veritable arm” of Pakistani intelligence.

Former President Barack Obama joined lawmakers in praising the operation.

“It’s possible to root out terrorism without being at war in Afghanistan,” Obama said in a Twitter message. “And I hope it provides a small measure of peace to the 9/11 families and everyone else who has suffered at the hands of Al Qaeda.”

The US found out this year that Zawahiri’s wife, daughter and her children had relocated to a safe house in Kabul, officials said. Later, Zawahiri was also identified there.

In the last few weeks, Biden convened officials to scrutinise the intelligence. He was updated throughout May and June and was briefed on July 1 on a proposed operation by intelligence leaders. On July 25, he received an updated report and authorised the strike once an opportunity was available, the unnamed US official said.

Also read: From a surgeon to Al-Qaeda chief: Ayman al-Zawahiri, killed by US in drone strike in Kabul

British foreign secretary Liz Truss said on Tuesday that the world would be a safer place. “The world will be a safer place following the US’s successful operation against Ayman al-Zawihiri,” Truss said on Twitter.

The family members of a 9/11 survivors group expressed gratitude to US President Joe Biden, saying it was a “significant step” in their years-long battle for justice and accountability.

The 9/11 Justice, a grassroots organisation comprising survivors, first responders, and family members who lost their loved ones in the September 11, 2011 terror attacks in the US, said the step was particularly meaningful to the 9/11 community who continued their battle for justice.

The group, in a statement, further urged Biden to continue to stand with the 9/11 community and support all those who seek justice for victims of the attacks that left 2,977 people dead.

Terry Strada, national chair of 9/11 Families United, expressed her gratitude for the commitment of intelligence agencies and the unflinching dedication shown by the US military in the fight against terrorism.“If we’re going to be serious about accountability, we must hold everyone accountable,” Strada was quoted as saying by Fox News.

(With agency inputs)

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