The United States has carried out an operation that led to the death of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a ‘precision’ strike in the centre of Kabul, Afghanistan. Although the jihadist movement is far from being defeated, this might be the biggest blow to the group since Osama bin Laden’s killing in 2011.
‘Now justice has been delivered, and this terrorist leader is no more’
‘Now justice has been delivered, and this terrorist leader is no more,’ Biden said from the White House on Monday. Zawahiri helped coordinate the 9/11 attacks on the US and had a $25 million bounty on his head. As Biden put it, ‘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.’
No Other Casualties
Biden claimed that he had approved the targeted attack in Kabul’s city centre and that no civilians were killed.
Three Taliban government representatives in Kabul declined to comment on Zawahiri’s death, although Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, earlier acknowledged that a strike occurred in Kabul on Sunday and vehemently denounced it for being against ‘international principles’.
A house was reportedly damaged by a rocket in Sherpoor, an upscale neighbourhood of the city that is also home to several embassies, according to Abdul Nafi Takor, a spokesperson for the interior ministry.
‘There were no casualties as the house was empty,’ said Takor. The house was surrounded by security forces on Tuesday and no journalists were allowed to enter the premises.
According to a senior administration official, U.S. intelligence determined with ‘high confidence’ from several intelligence streams that the man killed was Zawahiri.
During a conference call, the official stated that ‘Zawahiri continued to pose an active threat to U.S. persons, interests, and national security.’ His death deals al Qaeda a significant blow and will degrade the group’s ability to operate.
After serving for years as the organization’s chief organiser and strategist, Zawahiri succeeded bin Laden as al Qaeda’s leader, but his lack of charisma and competition from the Islamic State, a rival militant group, limited his capacity to incite lethal strikes against the West.
First Known Attack Since the Pullout
The drone attack is the first known US airstrike in Afghanistan since Biden’s controversial withdrawal from the country in 2021. The precision strike may prove the credibility of Washington’s claims that the US can still deal with threats from Afghanistan without on-ground military presence.
While the Taliban had pledged not to aid al Qaeda fighters in re-establishing themselves in Afghanistan, they did not honour the agreement.
‘The Taliban will have to answer for al-Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul, after assuring the world they would not give safe haven to al-Qaeda terrorists,’ said Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Apparently, Zawahiri was provided sanctuary by the Taliban following August 2021. According to Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, the Taliban had ‘grossly violated’ the Doha agreement by sheltering Zawahiri.
Both sides of the aisle hailed the importance and positive impacts of the operation.
Former President Barack Obama said, ‘Tonight’s news is also proof that it’s possible to root out terrorism without being at war in Afghanistan, 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.’
GOP politicians also praised the operation. Republican Senator Marco Rubio stated: ‘The world is safer without him in it and this strike demonstrates our ongoing commitment to hunt down all terrorists responsible for 9/11 and those who continue to pose a threat to U.S. interests.’
Persistent Counter-Terrorism Work
A senior U.S. official disclosed that finding Zawahiri was the result of persistent counter-terrorism work. This year, US intelligence officers first learned that Zawahiri’s wife, daughter, and children had moved to a safe house in Kabul, and later realized that Zawahiri was also there, the official said.
‘We are not aware of him ever leaving the safe house’
‘Once Zawahiri arrived at the location, we are not aware of him ever leaving the safe house,’ the official said. He was recognized numerous times on the balcony before being attacked. The official claimed that he kept making videos from the house and that some of them would be made public after his death.
Prior to the strike, Biden had instructed a thorough examination of all intelligence gathered during the past few weeks. He had received updates throughout May and June, and on 1 July, intelligence chiefs gave him a briefing on a planned operation. He was provided with an updated assessment on 25 July, after which he decided to authorize the strike when the time was right, according to an administration official.
According to the website Rewards for Justice, Zawahiri and other senior al Qaeda members are thought to have planned the attack on the USS Cole naval vessel in Yemen on 12 October 2000, which left 17 American sailors dead and more than 30 more injured.
Even though both bin Laden and Zawahiri had eluded being captured after the US toppled the Taliban following the September 11 attacks, the terrorist leaders have been brought to ultimate justice. Despite Biden’s controversial and suboptimal withdrawal from Afghanistan, US intelligence managed to track down Zawahiri and eliminate him without any reported civilian casualties. As a result, the rebounding jihadist movement received a gigantic blow and has been substantially weakened.
Balázs Hompoth is a graduate of Pázmány Péter Catholic University (PPKE). He majored in English and minored in Media and Communications with a special interest in journalism.