WASHINGTON- President Joe Biden announced Monday evening that a US counterterrorism operation over the weekend in Afghanistan had killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, one of the plotters behind the September 11 terrorist attacks.
“Justice has been served. And that terrorist leader is no more,” Biden said in a rare evening speech from the White House. “No matter how long it takes, no matter where you are hiding – if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and eliminate you.”
Two people briefed on the matter told NBC News that it was a CIA drone strike that killed al-Zawahiri.
Al-Zawahiri was Osama bin Laden’s second-in-command during the September 11 attacks and took over as head of al-Qaeda in 2011 after US forces killed bin Laden in Pakistan. In this role, al-Zawahiri continued to call for attacks on the United States and its allies.
In 2001, al-Zawahiri escaped US forces when they invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the previous Taliban government, which had refused to hand over bin Laden following the September 11 attacks. Al-Zawahiri’s fate was long unknown.
But US intelligence located al-Zawahiri earlier this year, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters Monday on the operation.
US intelligence officials had determined that al-Zawahiri had moved from Pakistan to a Taliban-backed safe house in downtown Kabul. Al-Zawahiri’s wife and children had settled there first, officials said. As US intelligence officials watched them, they learned that al-Zawahiri had joined his family.
Once al-Zawahiri arrived at the safe house, he never left, officials said.
Authorities then spent months identifying a “pattern of life,” following its daily habits to avoid civilian casualties, the senior administration official said.
Intelligence officials created a model of al-Zawahiri’s safe haven and used it to inform Biden of the risks to civilians, the senior administration official added. They tried to minimize the risk to civilians by not threatening the integrity of the structure during the planned strike.
When asked if Biden would have tolerated even a few civilian casualties, an administration official said there was no reason to expect any. The strike was so precise that it killed Zawahiri on a balcony without injuring family members elsewhere in the house, the official said.
Biden saw the model of the safe house during a July 1 Situation Room meeting that included CIA Director William Burns, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and Christine Abizaid, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
The president wanted to know what kind of building materials the safe house was made of, as well as potential conditions during the strike, such as weather and lighting.
He also pressed officials on why they were so confident that al-Zawahiri was indeed at the hideout.
Government lawyers, meanwhile, determined a legal basis for the operation. Al-Zawahiri was seen as a legitimate target given his continued leadership role within Al-Qaeda.
When asked on NBC’s “Today” show on Tuesday whether Al-Zawahiri was planning attacks on US interests, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said: “We believe that he was strategically active and led al-Qaeda, and continues to pose a serious threat to the United States and American citizens everywhere.”
On July 25, Biden again summoned the relevant Cabinet officials and aides. He was briefed on a potential operation by this expanded group of national security officials in the Situation Room.
The president wanted to know more about the safe house’s layout, officials said, and how a strike on al-Zawahiri inside Afghanistan could impact US relations with the Taliban. Biden specifically pressed them on how a strike inside the country could impact his administration’s efforts to relocate Afghans who had aided the United States during the war in Afghanistan.
At the end of the meeting, Biden authorized the airstrike.
The president’s entire national security team had recommended that he approve the strike.
His endorsement allowed intelligence officials to eliminate al Zawahiri when they determined the timing was optimal.
Al-Zawahiri was killed in a drone strike at 6:18 a.m. local time on Saturday July 30, or shortly before 10 p.m. Friday night in Washington.
Two Hellfire missiles were fired at al-Zawahiri while he was on the balcony of the safe house, the official said, adding that no civilians or al-Zawahiri’s family members were killed in the incident. the attack. The Haqqani Taliban took the family away after the attack, the official said.
In his Monday night speech, Biden described al-Zawahiri as a “mastermind” of the 9/11 attacks and said the terrorist leader also played a key role in the bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
“He laid a trail of murder and violence against American citizens, American military personnel, American diplomats and American interests,” Biden said.
The Associated Press reported for the first time that al-Zawahiri was killed in the operation.
Al-Zawahiri’s death comes nearly a year after the United States completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan, ending nearly 20 years of war in the country following the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Biden has been sharply criticized by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, as well as foreign allies, for his handling of the pullout that resulted in the deaths of 13 US service members and hundreds of civilians as the Taliban swiftly toppled the government. supported by the West and took control of the country.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement Monday that while Biden “deserves credit for endorsing this strike,” it also shows that “Afghanistan is once again becoming a major thicket of ‘terrorist activities following the President’s decision to withdraw the United States’. forces.”
The Taliban were not warned ahead of the strike on al-Zawahiri, the Biden administration official said on Monday, adding that the al-Qaeda leader’s presence in the country was a violation of the Doha agreement. signed by the United States and the Taliban in 2020.
Zoe Richards contributed.