Ayman al-Zawahari, who assumed the leadership of al-Qaeda after the death of Osama bin Laden, has been killed in a “precision strike” carried out by the CIA in the Afghan capital of Kabul, President Joe Biden has said, declaring that “justice has been delivered and this terrorist is no more”.
Zawahiri, 71, remained a visible international symbol of the group, 11 years after the US killed bin Laden in Pakistan. He was killed in a drone strike carried out on Saturday evening at a house in Kabul where he was sheltering to reunite with his family.
"I authorised a precision strike that would remove him from the battlefield, once and for all," Biden said on Monday in a speech from the White House. According to officials, Zawahiri was on the balcony of a safe house when the drone fired two missiles at him. Other family members were present, but they were unharmed and only Zawahiri was killed.
“He 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, said Biden. The US president was kept abreast of the strike against Zawahiri as he was isolated with a rebound case of Covid-19. Biden spoke outdoors on Monday from the Blue Room Balcony at the White House.
"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," Biden said. "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," he was quoted as saying by CNN.
‘Extraordinary persistence and skill’
Biden 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.
His killing will bring closure to families of the victims of the 2001 attacks, Biden said, adding that Zawahiri had also masterminded other acts of violence, including the suicide bombing of the USS Cole naval destroyer in Aden in October 2000 which killed 17 US sailors.
The strike comes one year after Biden ordered the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, prompting Taliban forces to rapidly seize control of the war-torn nation. Zawahiri comes from a distinguished Egyptian family, according to the New York Times.
His grandfather, Rabia'a al-Zawahiri, was an imam at al-Azhar University in Cairo. His great-uncle, Abdel Rahman Azzam, was the first secretary of the Arab League. He eventually helped to mastermind the deadliest terror attack on American soil, when hijackers turned US airliners into missiles.
A Taliban spokesman described the US operation as a clear violation of international principles. "Such actions are a repetition of the failed experiences of the past 20 years and are against the interests of the United States of America, Afghanistan and the region," the spokesman was quoted as saying by the BBC.
In a series of tweets, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said, "An airstrike 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."
Zawahiri was constantly on the move once the US-led invasion of Afghanistan began after the September 11, 2001, attacks. At one point, he narrowly escaped a US onslaught in the rugged, mountainous Tora Bora region of Afghanistan, an attack that left his wife and children dead.
He made his public debut as a Muslim militant when he was in prison for his involvement in the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. "We want to speak to the whole world. Who are we? Who are we?" he said in a jailhouse interview.
By that time, al-Zawahiri, a young doctor, was already a committed terrorist who conspired to overthrow the Egyptian government for years and sought to replace it with fundamentalist Islamic rule. He proudly endorsed Sadat's assassination after the Egyptian leader made peace with Israel.
Way to Pakistan
He spent three years in prison after Sadat's assassination and claimed he was tortured while in detention. After his release, he made his way to Pakistan, where he treated wounded mujahideen fighters who fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
That was when he met bin Laden and found a common cause, the CNN reported. "We are working with brother bin Laden," he said in announcing the merger of his terror group, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, with al-Qaeda in May 1998.
"We know him for more than 10 years now. We fought with him here in Afghanistan," he had said. Together, the two terror leaders signed a fatwa, or declaration: "The judgment to kill and fight Americans and their allies, whether civilians or military, is an obligation for every Muslim."