Biden: Killing of al-Qaeda leader is long-sought ‘justice’

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden announced Monday that al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawari was killed in a US drone strike in Kabul, an operation he said brought justice and hopefully “another measure of closure” to the families of victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

The President said in an evening address from the White House that US intelligence officials had tracked al-Zawari to a house in downtown Kabul where he was hiding with his family. The President approved the operation last week and it was performed on Sunday.

Al-Zawuri and the better-known Osama bin Laden planned the September 11, 2001 attacks, which was the first time many ordinary Americans learned about al-Qaeda. Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan on May 2, 2011 in an operation conducted by US Navy SEALs after a nearly decade-long hunt.

Biden said to Al-Zawari, “He will never, never again, allow Afghanistan to become a terrorist haven because he’s gone and we’re going to make sure nothing else happens.”

“This terrorist leader is no more,” he added.

The operation marks a significant counterterrorism success for the Biden administration, just 11 months after American troops left the country after two decades of war.

According to five people familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the attack was carried out by the CIA. Neither Biden nor the White House detailed the CIA’s involvement in the strike.

However, in his remarks, Biden paid tribute to the US intelligence community, noting that the operation was a success “thanks to their exceptional persistence and skill.”

Al-Zawari’s death eliminates the figure who shaped al-Qaeda like no other, first as bin Laden’s deputy since 1998 and then as his successor. Together, he and bin Laden turned the guns of the jihadist movement on the United States and carried out the deadliest attack on American soil ever – the 9/11 suicide hijackings.

The house where Al-Zawari was when he was killed belonged to a senior adviser to senior Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, according to a senior intelligence official. The official added that a CIA ground team and aerial reconnaissance conducted after the drone strike confirmed al-Zawari’s death.

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A senior administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity about the operation said “zero” US personnel were in Kabul.

During the 20-year war in Afghanistan, the US targeted and fragmented al-Qaeda and leaders went into hiding. But America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan last September gave the extremist group an opportunity to rebuild.

US military officials, including General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said al-Qaeda was trying to regroup in Afghanistan, where it faces limited threats from the now-ruling Taliban. Military leaders have warned that the group still wants to attack the US

After his assassination, the White House emphasized that al-Zawari remained a dangerous figure. The senior government official said al-Zawari continued to “set out a strategic direction,” including urging attacks on the US while he remained in hiding. He also prioritized to members of the terror network that the US remains al Qaeda’s “prime enemy,” the official said.

The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001 made bin Laden America’s No. 1 Enemy. But without his second-in-command, he probably would never have been able to carry them out. Bin Laden provided al-Qaeda with charisma and money, but al-Zawari brought with him the tactics and organizational skills needed to forge militants in a network of cells in countries around the world.

US intelligence officials have known for years about a network helping al-Zawari evade US intelligence officials looking for him, but had no lead on his possible whereabouts until just a few months ago.

Earlier this year, US officials learned that the terror leader’s wife, daughter and children had moved to a safe house in Kabul, according to the senior government official, who briefed reporters.

Officials eventually learned that al-Zawari was also staying at the safehouse in Kabul.

In early April, White House Deputy National Security Advisor Jon Finer and Biden’s Homeland Security Advisor Elizabeth D. Sherwood-Randall were briefed on this developing information. The information was soon carried up to National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.

Sullivan brought the information to Biden as U.S. intelligence officials “built a life pattern through multiple independent intelligence sources to inform the operation,” the official said.

Senior Taliban figures were aware of al-Zawari’s presence in Kabul, the official said, adding that the Taliban government had received no advance warning about the operation.

Within the Biden administration, only a small group of officials from key agencies and Vice President Kamala Harris were involved in the process.

On July 1, Biden was briefed on the proposed operation in the Situation Room, a briefing that saw the President closely examine a model of the house where Zawari was hiding. He gave his final approval for the surgery on Thursday. Al-Zawari was standing on the balcony of his hideout when two Hellfire missiles were fired from an unmanned drone, killing him.

Al-Zawari’s family was in a different part of the house when the operation was carried out and it is believed no one else was killed in the operation, the official said.

“We’re making it clear again tonight: no matter how long it takes, no matter where you’re hiding, if you pose a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out,” Biden said.

Al-Zawari was hardly a household name like bin Laden, but he played an enormous role in the terrorist group’s operations.

The bond between the two terrorists was forged in the late 1980s when al-Zawari reportedly treated Saudi millionaire bin Laden in the caves of Afghanistan while Soviet bombardments rattled the mountains around them.

Zawari, who is on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist list, had a $25 million bounty on his head for any information that could be used to kill or capture him.

Al-Zawhiri and bin Laden planned the September 11 attacks, which was the first time many ordinary Americans learned about al-Qaeda.

Photos from this period often showed the bespectacled, mild-looking Egyptian doctor sitting at bin Laden’s side. Al-Zawahiri had merged his group of Egyptian militants with bin Laden’s al-Qaeda in the 1990s.

“The strong contingent of Egyptians applied organizational know-how, financial expertise, and military experience to wage violent jihad against leaders who viewed the fighters as un-Islamic and their patrons, particularly the United States,” wrote Steven A. Cook for the Foreign Relations Council last year.

When the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan destroyed al-Qaeda’s safe haven and dispersed, killed and captured its members, al-Zawari ensured al-Qaeda’s survival. He rebuilt their leadership in the Afghan-Pakistani border region and installed allies as lieutenants in key positions.

He also transformed the organization from a centralized planner of terrorist attacks to the head of a franchise chain. He led the establishment of a network of autonomous offices across the region, including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, North Africa, Somalia, Yemen and Asia. Over the next decade, al Qaeda inspired or was directly involved in attacks in all of these areas, as well as in Europe, Pakistan and Turkey, including the 2004 train bombings in Madrid and the 2005 transit bombings in London.

More recently, the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen proved its ability to plan attacks on US soil, with a bombing of a US airliner in 2009 and an attempted package bomb the following year.

But even before bin Laden’s death, al-Zawari was struggling to maintain al-Qaeda’s relevance in a changing Middle East.

He tried, with little success, to capture the wave of insurgency that swept across the Arab world from 2011, urging Islamic hardliners to seize power in countries where leaders had fallen. But while Islamists have risen to prominence in many places, they have strong ideological differences with al-Qaeda and oppose its agenda and leadership.

Despite this, al-Zawari attempted to pose as the leader of the Arab Spring. America “faces an Islamic nation in revolt that has emerged from its lethargy into a renaissance of jihad,” he said in a video eulogizing bin Laden, who wore a white robe and turban and carried an assault rifle behind him leaning against a wall.

Al-Zawari was also a more divisive figure than his predecessor. Many militants described the soft-spoken bin Laden in admiring and almost spiritual terms.

In contrast, al-Zawari was notoriously prickly and pedantic. He engaged in ideological disputes with critics from the jihad camp, and in his videos he raised his index finger in a scolding manner. Even some key figures in al Qaeda’s central leadership have been put off, calling it overly controlling, secretive and divisive.

Some militants, whose links with bin Laden predated al-Zawari’s, always saw him as an arrogant intruder.

“I have never taken orders from al-Zawari,” scoffed Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, one of the network’s leaders in East Africa until his death in 2011, in a 2009 paper posted online. “We don’t take orders from anyone except our historical leadership.”

Rumors of al-Zawari’s death have been circulating for several years. But in April, a video surfaced of the al-Qaeda leader praising an Indian Muslim woman who flouted a ban on wearing a hijab, or headscarf. This footage was the first evidence in months that he was alive.

A statement from the Afghan Taliban government confirmed the airstrike but made no mention of al-Zawari or other casualties.

It said the Taliban “strongly condemn this attack, calling it a clear violation of international principles and the Doha Accords,” the US’ 2020 pact with the Taliban that led to the withdrawal of American forces.

“Such actions are a repetition of the failed experiences of the past 20 years and run counter to the interests of the United States, Afghanistan and the region,” the statement said.

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Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor, Ellen Knickmeyer, Zeke Miller, James LaPorta, Michael Balsamo, and Darlene Superville in Washington; Rahim Faiez in Islamabad; and Lee Keath in Cairo contributed reporting.

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