The United States killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a drone strike, President Joe Biden said Monday in a speech from the White House.
“I authorized a precision strike that would remove him from the battlefield, once and for all,” Biden said.
Zawahiri, who just turned 71 years old, had remained a visible international symbol of the group, 11 years after the US killed Osama bin Laden. At one point, he acted as bin Laden’s personal physician.
Zawahiri was sheltering in downtown Kabul to reunite with his family, Biden said, and was killed in what a senior administration official described as “a precise tailored airstrike” using two Hellfire missiles. The drone strike was conducted at 9:48 p.m. ET on Saturday was authorized by Biden following weeks of meetings with his Cabinet and key advisers, the official said on Monday, adding that no American personnel were on the ground in Kabul at the time of the strike.
Senior Haqqani Taliban figures were aware of Zawahiri’s presence in the area, the official said, in “clear violation of the Doha agreement,” and even took steps to conceal his presence after Saturday’s successful strike, restricting access to the safe house and rapidly relocating members of his family, including his daughter and her children, who were intentionally not targeted during the strike and remained unharmed. The US did not alert Taliban officials ahead of Saturday’s strike.
In a series of tweets, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said, “An air strike was carried out on a residential house in Sherpur area of Kabul city on July 31.”
He said, “The nature of the incident was not apparent at first” but the security and intelligence services of the Islamic Emirate investigated the incident and “initial findings determined that the strike was carried out by an American drone.”
The tweets by Mujahid came out prior to CNN reporting Zawahiri’s death. Mujahid said the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan “strongly condemns this attack on any pretext and calls it a clear violation of international principles and the Doha Agreement.”
Biden, who was kept abreast of the strike against Zawahiri as he isolated with a rebound case of Covid-19, spoke outdoors Monday from the Blue Room Balcony at the White House.
Zawahiri, Biden said, “was deeply involved in the planning of 9/11, one of the most responsible for the attacks that murdered 2,977 people on American soil. For decades, he was the mastermind of attacks against Americans.”
“Now, justice has been delivered and this terrorist leader is no more. People around the world no longer need to fear the vicious and determined killer,” he continued. “The United States continues to demonstrate our resolve and our capacity to defend the American people against those who seek to do us harm. 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.”
The President said the precision strike targeting was the result of the “extraordinary persistence and skill” of the nation’s intelligence community.
“Our intelligence community located Zawahiri earlier this year — he moved to downtown Kabul to reunite with members of his immediate family,” Biden said.
The strike comes one year after Biden ordered the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, prompting Taliban forces to rapidly seize control of the nation.
Biden said on Monday that when he withdrew US troops from the country, he “made the 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, and I made a promise to the American people, that we continue to conduct effective counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and beyond. We’ve done just that.”
Biden pledged that Zawahiri “will never again allow Afghanistan to become a terrorist safe haven, because he is gone and we’re going to make sure that nothing else happens.”
The President concluded by expressing gratitude to US intelligence and counterterrorism communities, saying that he hopes Zawahiri’s death will bring some measure of closure to the friends and families of 9/11 victims.
“To those who continue to seek to harm the United States, hear me now: We will always remain vigilant and we will act — and we will always do what is necessary to ensure the safety and security of Americans at home and around the globe,” he concluded.