Al Qaeda leader killed by US drone strike in Afghanistan, US media reports

US

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has been killed by a US airstrike in Afghanistan, US President Joe Biden has confirmed.

Addressing the nation from the balcony off the White House Blue Room, Mr Biden said “justice has been delivered” after authorising the strike which killed the man who was one of the masterminds of the 9/11 terror attacks.

“This terrorist leader is no more,” Mr Biden added, before expressing his hope the killing brings “one more measure of closure” to families of the nearly 3000 people who died in the attacks on 11 September 2001.

The president added that Afghanistan will “never again become a terrorist safe haven” after the strike was carried out nearly a year after US troops withdrew from the country.

Al-Zawahiri was standing on the balcony of a safehouse in downtown Kabul on Sunday morning when he was killed by two hellfire missiles fired from a drone.

Mr Biden said none of the terror leader’s family members were injured and there were no civilian casualties.

The FBI had been offering $25m (£20m) for “information leading to the apprehension or conviction” of the 71-year-old, whose death is the biggest blow to al Qaeda since its founder Osama bin Laden was killed by US special forces in 2011.

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The operation to kill al-Zawahiri was many months in the planning, according to a senior US administration official.

Mr Biden was first briefed about a proposed operation to take out the al Qaeda leader on 1 July this year.

But it was much earlier in the year when intelligence suggested that his wife and children had relocated to Kabul. He and his family were believed until that point to have been in hiding in Pakistan.

The family were located to a safe house where, the US official says, Zawahiri was eventually spotted too.

He was watched for several months and his pattern of life was recorded. He never left the house but did spend time on a balcony where he was eventually killed.

Mr Biden told the US people about the drone strike from the balcony off the White House Blue Room as he remains in isolation in the residence while he continues to test positive for COVID-19.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has confirmed that a strike took place and strongly condemned it, calling it a violation of “international principles”.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, right, with Osama bin Laden in image that emerged in November 2001
Image:
Ayman al-Zawahiri, right, with Osama bin Laden in an image that emerged in November 2001

Speaking on 31 August 2021, after the last US troops left Afghanistan, Mr Biden said the US would not let up on its fight against terrorism in that country 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 it.”

Previewing the strike that would occur 11 months later, Mr Biden said at the time: “We have what’s called over-the-horizon capabilities, which means we can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground – or very few, if needed.”

Analysis: Biden will point to this as proof the US will not allow Afghanistan to be a safe haven for terrorists

This is the most significant “get” for the Americans since US Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden at his Pakistani hideout in 2011.

Ayman al-Zawahiri was literally bin Laden’s right hand man and when the 9/11 mastermind was killed, he became the leader, illusive until this weekend.

It was widely believed that the 71-year old was hiding somewhere in Pakistan, making his killing in the Afghan capital Kabul all the more surprising.

In recent years he has not been an active figure, but has held an ever-present figurehead role over an organisation whose anti-western ambitions have never changed.

The Americans say a drone was used in the operation to kill him. This is significant. Since the US withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer, the US military has been forced to conduct any counter terror operations and eliminate any perceived threat from beyond the Afghan border.

During the chaotic withdrawal, the American officials claimed insisted that “over the horizon” operations would be effective.

President Biden said repeatedly that he would not allow Afghanistan to be a safe haven for terrorists.

He will now point to this operation as proof of that.

Al-Zawahiri helped coordinate the 9/11 attacks in which four passenger aircraft were hijacked and flown into both towers of the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.

The terror attack left nearly 3,000 people dead on 11 September 2001.

He was also charged in the US for his alleged roles in the 7 August 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and Nairobi in Kenya.

The Egyptian had been bin Laden’s personal doctor before becoming his deputy and eventually his successor.

Al-Zawahiri was reported to be the brains behind some of the group’s grandest ambitions, including the terror group’s unsuccessful efforts to acquire nuclear and biological weapons.

In recent years he presided over al Qaeda at a time of decline, with most of the group’s founding figures dead or in hiding.

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