The US killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a drone strike in Afghanistan over the weekend, in the first known counter-terrorism operation in the country since it fell to the Taliban last year.
“After carefully considering clear and convincing evidence of [Zawahiri’s] location, I authorised a precision strike that would remove him from the battlefield once and for all,” President Joe Biden said at the White House on Monday.
“My administration will continue to vigilantly monitor and address threats from al-Qaeda no matter where they emanate from,” he added.
Zawahiri was Osama bin Laden’s second-in-command and took control of al-Qaeda after US Navy Seals killed bin Laden in a raid in 2011.
The US learnt that Zawahiri’s family had moved to a safe house in Kabul and later located the al-Qaeda leader there. Senior administration officials were briefed about the intelligence in April, and later informed the president about Zawahiri’s whereabouts.
On multiple occasions, Zawahiri was spotted on the balcony of the safe house, and he was ultimately struck there over the weekend. His family was elsewhere in the house when the operation occurred and was not targeted or hit, a senior US administration official said.
Senior officials of the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network were aware of Zawahiri’s location in Kabul, the US administration official said. Biden authorised the operation on July 25, the official added.
Zawahiri is believed to be the only person who died in the operation. The US official said the drone strike that killed Zawahiri took place on Sunday and that two Hellfire missiles were fired.
“I made a promise to the American people that we would continue to conduct effective counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan and beyond. We’ve done just that,” Biden said, speaking about one year after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Zawahiri, a physician, previously led the Egyptian Islamic Jihad before the group merged with al-Qaeda. He later climbed the ladder of the terror organisation.
He is believed to have plotted the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen that killed 17 US service members, and was also an architect of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.
He was indicted by the US for his alleged role in the 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.
The US state department had offered a reward of up to $25mn for information leading to Zawahiri.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers praised the operation and the US security officials who took part, though some Republicans said it underscored al-Qaeda’s ability to operate in Afghanistan.
“Our chaotic and deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan opened the door for al-Qaeda to operate freely inside the country to conduct external operations against the United States and our allies again,” said Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House foreign affairs committee.
Washington’s allies also praised the operation. “Tough job professionally done by our US allies,” Richard Moore, the head of Britain’s MI6, wrote on Twitter. “Culmination of a long, shared effort since 9/11 to eliminate the threat posed by Zawahiri — a man responsible, with his toxic creed, for the death of so many these past three decades.”
A Taliban spokesperson said the operation violated international principles and the Doha Agreement, the US accord with the Taliban that led to the withdrawal of American forces last year.
The senior administration official said Zawahiri’s presence in downtown Kabul had violated the agreement.