A US drone strike in Afghanistan has killed the top al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, Joe Biden announced on Monday.
The US president described the death of al-Zawahiri, who was Osama Bin Laden’s deputy and successor, as a major blow to the terrorist network behind the September 11 2001 attacks.
“Justice has been delivered and this terrorist leader is no more,” Biden said in a live televised address from the White House. “People around the world no longer need to fear the vicious and determined killer.”
The CIA strike will be seen as a proof of the US’s ability to conduct “over-the-horizon” operations despite last year’s military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. But it also raised questions over al-Qaida’s continued presence in the country since the Taliban regained power.
One of the world’s most wanted men, al-Zawahiri and his family had moved into a safe house in downtown Kabul, the capital, according to White House officials. He was spotted on a balcony on numerous occasions over several months and continued to produce al-Qaida propaganda videos, some of which may yet appear posthumously.
Biden was personally involved in meetings to plan a potential strike against him during May, June and July, a senior administration official said on a conference call with reporters.
The president “asked detailed questions about what we knew and how we knew it. Importantly, he examined closely the model of al-Zawahiri’s house that the intelligence community had built and brought into the White House situation room for briefings on this issue.”
Biden sought explanations of lighting, weather, construction material and other factors that could influence the operation and reduce the risk of civilian casualties, the official added. “He was particularly focused on ensuring that every step had been taken to ensure the operation would minimize that risk and he wanted to understand the basis on which we had confidence in our assessment.”
The president eventually ordered a strike on the safe house at a meeting of key cabinet members and national security officials on 25 July. It was carried out at 9.48pm ET on Saturday by an unmanned aerial vehicle.
The official continued: “Two Hellfire missiles were fired at Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was killed. We are confident through our intelligence sources and methods, including multiple streams of intelligence, that we killed al-Zawahiri and no other individual.”
The official added that al-Zawahiri’s family members were present in other parts of the safe house at the time of the strike, were not targeted and were unharmed. “We have no indications that civilians were harmed in the strike. We took every possible precaution to avoid civilian harm.”
The official said members of the Taliban took action after the strike to conceal al-Zawahiri’s former presence at the location, moving swiftly to remove his wife, daughter and her children to another location.
“We have identified a concerted effort to restrict access to the safe house in the surrounding area for hours after the strike. The safe house used by al-Zawahiri is now empty.”
The description of Biden’s decisive action may be viewed by historians in contrast to multiple accounts suggesting that, as vice-president, he was hesitant or skeptical about going ahead with the special forces raid that killed Bin Laden in 2011.
Barack Obama said on Monday night the successful attack was a tribute to Biden’s leadership, and to intelligence operatives “who have been working for decades for this moment”.
He added: “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.”
That Bin Laden operation gave Obama a statesmanlike made-for-TV moment at the White House and, 11 years later, it was Biden’s turn, albeit on a balcony because of his coronavirus “rebound” infection.
Noting that al-Zawahiri had been “deeply involved” in 9/11, the president 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. We will never forget. We continue to mourn every innocent life that was stolen on 9/11 and honor their memories.”