WASHINGTON — Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri, who helped plot the 9/11 terrorist attacks with Osama bin Laden, has been killed in a U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden said Monday.
According to The Associated Press, the operation occurred over the weekend in downtown Kabul, where the 71-year-old al-Zawahri and his family had been staying in a home, intelligence officials said.
Here’s what we know so far:
1. What happened?
Biden approved the strike last week after U.S. intelligence officials located al-Zawahri earlier this year, according to The New York Times. The CIA carried out the mission early Sunday, firing two Hellfire missiles at al-Zawahri while he was on the balcony of the Kabul home where he had been hiding, officials told the newspaper.
A senior U.S. intelligence official told the AP that the home where al-Zawahri had been staying was owned by an aide to a senior Taliban leader. High-ranking Taliban figures knew al-Zawahri was in the city, the official said.
The U.S. was able to verify the death via aerial reconnaissance and a CIA ground team, the AP reported. No civilians or members of al-Zawahri’s family were killed in the strike, officials told the Times.
2. Who was al-Zawahri and what did he do?
Al-Zawahri, a surgeon who was born in Egypt, bonded with bin Laden in the 1980s and merged his group of Egyptian militans with bin Laden’s in the ‘90s, according to the AP.
In addition to helping plan 9/11, experts said al-Zawahri was involved in the deadly bombings of U.S. embassies in 1998 and an attack on the USS Cole in 2000, NBC News reported. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, which placed al-Zawahri on its list of most wanted terrorists, offered $25 million for information leading to his capture, according to the AP.
Al-Zawahri became the leader of al-Qaida after bin Laden was killed in a 2011 American raid in Pakistan, the Times reported.
3. What did Biden and his administration say about the strike?
Al-Zawahri will “never again allow Afghanistan to become a terrorist safe haven because he is gone, and we’re going to make sure that nothing else happens,” Biden said Monday in an address from the White House.
“Now, justice has been delivered, and this terrorist leader is no more,” Biden said. “People around the world no longer need to fear the vicious and determined killer. 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.”
Late Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted that the administration has “delivered on our commitment to act against terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan.”
“The world is safer following the death of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri,” the tweet read. “The U.S. will continue to act against those who threaten our country, our people or our allies.”
4. How did Republicans respond?
Some prominent Republicans joined Democrats in praising the mission, including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who called al-Zawahri’s slaying “an important accomplishment.”
“All Americans will breathe easier today knowing Ayman al-Zawahri, the leader of al-Qaida, has been eliminated,” Cruz said in a statement Monday. “This strike should be a message to terrorists near and far: if you conspire to kill Americans, we will find and kill you.”
Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., also lauded the strike but urged leaders not to become complacent.
“Congratulations to the Biden Administration and all those brave Americans involved in the successful counterterrorism operation against al-Qaida leader Ayman Al-Zawahri,” Graham tweeted Monday evening. “This is a significant event in the War on Terror. All those involved have delivered a strong message that America never forgets.”
He continued: “Unfortunately, we have learned that killing terrorists like bin Laden, al-Baghdadi and al-Zarqawi doesn’t end terrorism. What unnerves me is that Al-Zawahri felt comfortable enough being out in the open in the Kabul area after the Taliban takeover. So much for the Taliban rejecting al-Qaida. This is proof positive that Afghanistan has once again become a safe haven for international terrorists.”
Graham went on to say that terrorist groups appear to be “getting stronger in Afghanistan under Taliban control, presenting a direct threat to the American homeland.”
U.S. Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, echoed the sentiment.
“The world is better off without al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri, and I commend the brave men and women who helped bring about his demise,” Inhofe said in a statement. “The fact that he was killed in Afghanistan, however, reflects the total failure of the Biden administration’s policy towards that country.”
5. How did the Taliban respond to the strike?
According to the AP, the Taliban said in a statement that it “strongly condemns this attack and calls it a clear violation of international principles and the Doha Agreement,” the 2020 pact that led to U.S. forces’ withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“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 statement continued.
– The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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