Ayman al-Zawahri, one of the key leaders who helped plot the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, was killed by a US drone strike. Washington confirmed that the weekend’s early morning strike in the heart of Kabul finally reached al-Zawahri.

The US has been tracking this Qaeda leader for 21 years, especially since he was one of the blacklisted leaders working closely with Osama Bin Laden.

“Now justice has been delivered and this terrorist leader is no more,” Mr. Biden said in a seven-minute nationally televised address from the White House. “We make it clear again tonight,” he added, “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.”

Earlier this year, US intelligence was able to track al-Zawahri in Kabul, and they spent months confirming his identity. Finally, a senior administration official confirmed that al-Zawahri was killed on the balcony of a house when he was targeted with two Hellfire missiles. Apparently, there was no US military on the ground in Afghanistan, and this was an “over-the-horizon” operation.

The White House confirmed President Biden had been in all the meetings to plan the attack. Biden reported, “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.”

The president also covered discussions around weather, construction material, lighting, and other factors that could influence civilian casualties.

“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.”

Then, on July 25, Biden officially ordered a stroke on the safe house at a meeting of key cabinet members and national security officials. The drone strike was launched at 21:48 ET last Saturday.

“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.”

White House official added that al-Zawahri’s family members were secured in a safe house during the strike and were not targeted nor harmed.”

“We have no indications that civilians were harmed in the strike. We took every possible precaution to avoid civilian harm.”

They continued that the operation was carefully done to make sure they could swiftly remove his wife and children.

“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.”

With this news, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said they are condemning the attack “on whatever the pretext” and saying this violates the Doha peace treaty. However, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken rebutted, saying it was the Taliban to continue to fail the agreement. Blinken said Al Qaeda had continued its operations even after the renegotiated Donald Trump-era agreement signed in Feb. 2020.

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In the face of the Taliban’s unwillingness or inability to abide by their commitments, we will continue to support the Afghan people with robust humanitarian assistance and to advocate for the protection of their human rights, especially of women and girls,’ Blinken said in a statement Monday.

The Brains Behind Al-Qaeda

The Egyptian-born surgeon-turned-jihadist was the one who took over when Bin Laden was killed. His life was reportedly covered in conspiracy, violence, betrayal, and murder. Though Bin Laden has been the figurehead for jihadists who attacked during 9-11, counterterrorism experts believe it was al-Zawahri who was actually the brains of the operations.

Dr. Tawfik Hamid
SCONA 62 – Dr. Tawfik Hamid (Source: Memorial Student Center Texas A&M University/Wikimedia)

In May 2011, a former Islamist militant, Tawfik Hamid, told Investigative Project on Terrorism that al-Zawahri is genuinely a more influential leader in the group.

“When you listen to him, you can tell clearly that he has the ambition and is dedicated 100 percent to achieve this mission,” Hamid said.

But, unlike Bin Laden’s commercial ideology of “the west is the enemy,” al-Zawahri initially focused on his hatred of secular rule in Egypt. In 1981, he was one of those who tried to assassinate President Anwar Sadat to blame the “far enemy,” the United States.

As Hamid confirmed, the group’s influence and scale grew under al-Zawahri. Their tactical strength is focused on their assault missions, including their attacks on American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998. They also committed suicide bombing of the American Destroyer Cole in Yemen in 2000. Then finally, the infamous 9-11 attacks led to the American military targeting Afghanistan and Iraq.

After Bin Laden was killed, Al Qaeda had been radio silent for a month. There were no talks about the organization’s future or if they are looking to find a replacement.

But, ultimately, al-Zawahri’s influence prevailed, and he continued to lead the Taliban with one ultimate goal: to kill Americans everywhere.

al-Zawahri died at the age of 71.