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Al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, Sheltered in Kabul, Killed by U.S. Drone Strike

Taliban claim hit on terror leader is "a clear violation of international norms and the Doha Agreement"; U.S. says Taliban violated Doha with Qaeda safehouse.

After 11 years at the helm of al-Qaeda, 71-year-old Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed by a precision drone strike Sunday while on the balcony of his Kabul home, U.S. officials said late Monday.

The Egyptian doctor and founder of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, right-hand man to al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, and a key plotter behind terror attacks including 9/11 had been under indictment for his role in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. In conjunction with the announcement, the FBI’s Most Wanted poster offering up to a $25 million reward for information leading to Zawahiri’s apprehension declared him deceased; still on the Most Wanted Terrorists list is Zawahiri’s deputy, Saif al-Adel, also affiliated with Egyptian Islamic Jihad and wanted in connection with the embassy bombings.

“He carved a trail of murder and violence against American citizens, American service members, American diplomats, and American interests,” President Biden said Monday while announcing Zawahiri’s death. “…My administration will continue to vigilantly monitor and address threats from al-Qaeda no matter where they emanate from.”

“Today and every day, I’m so grateful for the superb patriots who serve the United States intelligence community and counterterrorism communities. They never forget, those dedicated women and men who tirelessly work every single day to keep our country safe, to prevent future tragedies,” Biden added. “It is thanks to their extraordinary persistence and skill that this operation was a success. They’ve made us all safer.”

Zawahiri released video and audio messages throughout the years, long lectures in front of simple backdrops that did not evolve even as other terror videos from al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, the Taliban, ISIS, and more embraced higher production values and messaging that often resemble action films to entice young recruits.

In an April video, Zawahiri praised and delivered a poem in honor of a college student in India who shouted “Allahu Akbar” at other students who were heckling her over wearing a hijab; in November, Zawahiri railed against the United Nations as “an organization created to control the world and to impose on it an irreligious and immoral ideology that contradicts the Islamic Shariah.”

To mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda released a Zawahiri lecture titled “Jerusalem Will Not Be Judaized,” in which he told jihadists that their foes “can be bled to death using inventive ideas, simple tools, and waging a war in which the entire world is the battlefield.”

“The current stage demands that we exhaust the enemy until it whines and moans due to economic and military bleeding,” Zawahiri said. “It is in this context that the importance of operations outside the theater in which the enemy expects us to strike, operations on enemy soil and beyond enemy lines becomes evident.”

Rumors about Zawahiri’s death, attributed to declining health, have circulated for years; the 9/11 video marked his return after a monthslong absence that fueled those rumors.

Bakhtar News Agency, the state-run outlet controlled by the Taliban government, confirmed today that the strike occurred in the well-to-do Kabul neighborhood of Sherpur.

“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan strongly condemns the attack and calls it a clear violation of international norms and the Doha Agreement,” the agency said. “Such actions are a repetition of the failed experiences of the past 20 years and are against the interests of the US, Afghanistan, and the region. Repeating such actions will damage the available opportunities.”

A senior administration official told reporters on a call Monday evening that “obviously, this is a very important point for us to make clear to the Taliban that we expect them to abide by the terms of the Doha Agreement — and the presence of Zawahiri in downtown Kabul was a clear violation of that.”

“Going forward with the Taliban, we’ll continue to hold them accountable for their actions,” the official added. “And we have made clear to them in the intervening days that we also expect them to take no action that would harm Mark Frerichs as we are involved in the effort to secure his release after his long detention and captivity.”

Frerichs is a civil engineer who disappeared in Khost Province in January 2020 and is believed to be held by the Haqqani Network — allies of the Taliban, like al-Qaeda. The Taliban reportedly have been pressing the U.S. government for a prisoner swap.

The official said that “of course we did not alert the Taliban to the fact that we were going to take this strike,” and noted that “there were zero American personnel on the ground in Kabul.”

“What we were able to do is stitch together some intelligence based on the movements of his family, quite frankly,” National Security Council Strategic Communications Coordinator John Kirby told CNN today. “And then once we tracked them into Kabul, we were able to then be able to track him in his efforts to reunite them. That led then to weeks, if not several months, of making sure that we had the right guy, that this was, in fact, Mr. Zawahiri, and that this was, in fact, their residence, and then, of course, developing a pattern of life habits — if and when he went outside, how often, on what days, for how long, all that kind of stuff factored into it. And once we knew that we had an effective pattern of life and opportunities that could be taken, it was really then to stitching together how you were going to take that opportunity and with what.”

“In this case, we used an unmanned aerial vehicle with missiles, obviously, and two of those missiles were fired at Mr. Zawahiri while he was outside on that third-floor balcony,” Kirby continued. “The president made it very clear, when he made the decision, that he wanted to make sure we avoided civilian casualties, and we know we did. From a series of intelligence and other sources that we have available to us, we have been able to ascertain with high confidence that no civilians were hurt or injured and no real damage even to the structure, other than minor damage, from this strike.”

Kirby echoed that the downtown safehouse “was a violation of the Doha agreement, which specifically says — that commits them to not allowing Afghanistan to be used as a safe haven or a launching pad for attacks against the United States or other of our allies and partner.”

“And clearly, because Mr. Zawahiri was not only there, but was actively encouraging his followers to plot and plan attacks against American interests and the American homeland, that’s a violation,” he said. “We’ve made that very clear, and believe me, this strike itself sends a very strong message to the Taliban about our sincerity in meeting that commitment.”

The Taliban have moved al-Zawahiri’s family — his wife, daughter, and her children — away from the house and have “done a lot of cleaning up,” Kirby said, adding that the strike demonstrates “a layer of opportunities and capabilities in the region to be able to do this in the future if we really need to.”

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, anti-Semitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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