Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri killed in drone strike, Biden says
Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed over the weekend in a drone strike in a U.S. counterterrorism operation, President Joe Biden announced Monday night.
“He carved a trail of murder and violence against American citizens, American service members, American diplomats, and American interests,” President Biden said in his brief remarks from the White House balcony. “Now, justice has been delivered. And this terrorist leader is no more.”
The president said al-Zawahiri was killed in Kabul.
“After relentlessly seeking Zawahiri for years under Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump, our intelligence community located Zawahiri earlier this year,” Mr. Biden said. “He had moved to downtown Kabul to reunite with members of his immediate family.”
The U.S. government had multiple, independent sources confirming al-Zawahiri’s whereabouts at a safehouse, a senior administration official told reporters on a call Monday evening. The strike was a result of careful, patient and persistent work by counterterrorism officials over the course of months and years.
The president said that after he considered “clear and convincing evidence” of al-Zawahiri’s location, he “authorized a precision strike that would remove him from the battlefield once and for all.” He gave his final approval to “go get him” one week ago.
Al-Zawahiri was ultimately taken out by a drone at 9: 48 p.m. ET Saturday, while he was on the balcony of the safehouse, and his family members were in different rooms of the house.
“None of his family members were hurt and there were no civilian casualties,” the president said. The U.S. government has a high level of confidence that no one else was killed in the strike, according to the senior administration official.
The senior administration official said the president received regular updates as the U.S. government zeroed in on al-Zawahiri. Once the safehouse was located, the president wanted to understand more about the layout of the safehouse’s doors and windows to avoid other casualties. In a July 25 meeting, the president authorized a precise, tailored air strike that would minimize civilian deaths as much as possible, the senior administration official said.
With al-Zawahiri’s death, all of the top plotters of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks are now either dead or captured.
The FBI updated its “Most Wanted Terrorist” poster Monday with al-Zawahiri’s status: “Deceased.”
The president spoke of his visits to Shanksville, Penn., and Ground Zero in New York last year on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and he said that seeing the names of those who died in the attack etched in bronze was a reminder of the vow Americans made to “never forget.”
Mr. Biden said his hope was that the action taken against al-Zawahiri “will bring one more measure of closure” to those who lost loved ones on 9/11.
The strike came nearly one year after U.S. troops withdrew from Afghanistan, which was not lost on the president. The Biden administration has long made the argument that it can continue to address terrorist threats to the American people without boots on the ground in Afghanistan, from “over the horizon.”
“When I ended our military mission in Afghanistan almost a year ago, I made a decision that after 20 years of war, the United States no longer needed thousands of boots on the ground in Afghanistan to protect America from terrorists who seek to do us harm,” Mr. Biden said. “I made a promise to the American people that we’d continue to conduct effective counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and beyond. We’ve done just that.”
Two intelligence sources familiar with the matter said the strike was carried out by the CIA.
The president, who tested positive with a rebound case of COVID-19, delivered his remarks outdoors from a balcony at the White House.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid on Monday confirmed an airstrike conducted by a drone in Kabul. He said the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan views that as a clear violation of international principles.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday that by sheltering al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan, “the Taliban grossly violated the Doha Agreement and repeated assurances to the world that they would not allow Afghan territory to be used by terrorists to threaten the security of other countries.”
Former Acting CIA Director and CBS News contributor Michael Morell said after the president’s remarks that “it’s really hard for me to believe [al-Zawahiri] was in Kabul without the knowledge of at least some of the Taliban leadership.”
Noting that al-Zawahiri was “living there fairly openly, not trying to hide,” Morell said the strike also makes clear to any other al Qaeda members in Afghanistan that they must still worry about their security, despite the fact that the U.S. no longer has troops there.
Al-Zawahiri has long been a wanted man. After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, then-President George W. Bush released a list of the FBI’s 22 most wanted terrorists, with al-Zawahiri near the top of the list along with Osama bin Laden.
For years, al-Zawahiri was known as al Qaeda’s No. 2, but many analysts believe he was really the brains behind bin Laden’s operation.
Bin Laden was killed by U.S. special forces in 2011, but al-Zawahiri eluded attempts on his life and an international manhunt until his death.
Zawahiri continued to release video statements, including one on Sept. 11, 2021, although it was unclear if that recording was new or old. It was rumored for years that he had died, and the U.S. offered $25 million for information that could lead to his apprehension.
Andrew Ansbro, president of the FDNY-Firefighters Association, in a statement Monday thanked Mr. Biden for “helping to bring another level of closure to all impacted by these attacks.”
— CBS News’ Arden Farhi, Nancy Cordes, Andres Triay, Ahmad Muktar, Pat Milton and Olivia Gazis contributed to this report.
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