Ayman al-Zawahiri, the elusive leader of al-Qaeda who played a key role in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and took over the transnational terrorist franchise following Osama bin Laden’s death in 2011, was killed in a U.S. drone strike Sunday morning in Kabul.
The operation, which was years in the making and launched by the CIA, marked the first U.S. attack in Afghanistan since American forces left a year ago and represents a key victory for the Biden Administration, which pledged to stay on top of terrorist threats inside the war-torn country after the chaotic withdrawal.
Zawahiri’s death brings to a close one of the CIA’s longest-standing manhunts since Sept. 11, and, until now, one of the agency’s most confounding targets. Over the years, Zawahiri became as synonymous with al-Qaeda as Bin Laden. According to administration officials, Zawahiri was still in charge of al-Qaeda, issuing commands up until his death.
The administration began moving forward with its plan to strike Zawahiri, 71, in April, after intelligence indicated he had moved into a safehouse with his wife, daughter and grandchildren. Four months later, two missiles slammed into Zawahiri’s safehouse as he stood outside on the balcony taking in the morning air, according to a senior administration official.
The assassination marks an end of an era for the shadowy group, which has proven resilient despite more than two decades of war. U.S. intelligence estimates only a few hundred core al-Qaeda members remain, most of them living in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, with its leadership ranks decimated. Its worldwide reach, however, persists with thousands of members in affiliate organizations, such as al-Shabab in Somalia, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Algeria, and others.
“Now, justice has been delivered,” said President Biden Monday night, speaking on the south balcony of the White House. With the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial framed behind him, Biden used the moment to wage an unambiguous threat to members of any terrorist groups planning attacks against Americans. “We make it clear again tonight that 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,” Biden said.
The deadly strike was a test of Biden’s promise last year that the U.S. would be able to continue targeting al-Qaeda operatives plotting attacks inside Afghanistan from “over the horizon,” even after the U.S. withdrew thousands of forces from the country. “It can’t be a launching pad against the United States—we’re going to see to it that won’t happen,” Biden said Monday night.
Now the U.S. will be looking to determine just how much assistance Zawahiri got from the Taliban government while he was hiding out in Afghanistan’s capital and largest city, and assess whether the new government in Kabul was aware of Zawahiri’s activities and was assisting him in any way.
The path to Zawahiri’s demise began several years ago when the U.S. government picked up on a terror network it believed was concealing the al-Qaeda leader and his family, the senior official said. Then last year, U.S. intelligence began watching for indications that he may let his guard down with the Taliban’s reemergence to power in Afghanistan. “This year, we identified as the Zawahiri family, his wife, his daughter and her children relocated to a safe-house in Kabul,” the official said. “Zawahiri’s family exercised long-standing terrorist tradecraft that we assess was designed to prevent anyone from following them to Zawahiri. Over several months, we increased our confidence while he was present at the location in Kabul, and we gained insight on others present at the location and their activity.”
Throughout this year, the U.S. worked to build a “pattern of life,” which relies on gathering intelligence for months from various intelligence sources, including airborne surveillance and captured communications chatter. The tactic has been honed over decades in the U.S. counterterrorism approach and is now a key element of the administration’s “over-the-horizon” approach. With no U.S. presence in Afghanistan, the U.S. is now flying drones from the Gulf, mainly via al-Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, on long missions veering around Iran and through Pakistan.
“Once al-Zawahiri arrived at the location, we are not aware of him ever leaving the safe house,” the official said. Senior officials in the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, another militant group that has staged deadly attacks on U.S. and coalition troops, were aware of al-Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul, the official said.
U.S. intelligence observed Zawahiri and also investigated the construction and nature of the safe-house, so that “we could confidently conduct an operation to kill” him without threatening the structural integrity of the building and while minimizing the risk to his family and nearby civilians, the official said. “We convened a team of independent analysts to review all data surrounding the identity of the occupants of the safe house,” the official said.
A select group of officials from intelligence agencies were brought into the process beginning in April. On July 1, Biden was briefed on a proposed operation in the White House Situation Room by key members of his cabinet including CIA Director William Burns, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, National Counterterrorism Center Director Christine Abizaid and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.
A model of the home was built to walk the President through the operation. Biden was concerned with the potential for civilian casualties, as previous strikes had proved catastrophic because of faulty intelligence. “He sought explanations of lighting, of weather, of construction materials, and other factors that could influence the success of this operation and reduce the risk of civilian casualties,” the official said.
On July 25, Biden convened cabinet members and advisors for a final briefing on the intelligence assessment. At the end of the meeting, he authorized a drone strike. The authorization meant the U.S. government could conduct the strike as soon as an opportunity was available.
After the strike Sunday morning, Zawahiri’s wife, daughter and grandchildren could be seen fleeing the home, the official said. The administration alleges no civilians were killed.
“The safehouse used by Zawahiri is now empty, and Haqqani-Taliban members acted quickly to remove Zawahiri’s family to another location, consistent with a broader effort to cover-up that they had been living in the safe-house,” the official said.
Zawahiri was an Egyptian physician who joined his first jihadist cell in his teens. He founded the Egyptian Islamic Jihad in 1979. The group is most famous for its 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. In the late 1980s, Zawahiri was treating wounded mujahideen fighters from the Afghan-Soviet war when he met the younger Saudi millionaire bin Laden. The lifelong friendship began as an interdependent relationship. Bin Laden bankrolled Zawahiri and his organization, before helping him launch and build al-Qaeda.
In 2014, after bin Laden’s death, Zawahiri was responsible for al-Qaeda’s high-profile break with ISIS, when he grew angry with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, then-head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, who had expanded into the Syrian conflict and tried to bring the local al-Qaeda franchise, al-Nusra Front, under his control. Zawahiri admonished Baghdadi to go back to Iraq, but Baghdadi refused, snapping back in a terse audio recording. “I have to choose between the rule of God and the rule of Zawahiri, and I choose the rule of God.” It was a rare demonstration of defiance in an organization that demands absolute loyalty.
In his short speech to the American people Monday night, Biden said Zawahiri’s death showed that U.S. intelligence services never give up. “They never forget,” Biden said “It is thanks to their extraordinary persistence and skill that this operation was a success.”
“Here me now,” Biden added. “We will always remain vigilant and we will act.”
Write to W.J. Hennigan at firstname.lastname@example.org.