WASHINGTON — Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri, who took over command of the terrorist organization after the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011, was killed by a U.S. drone strike in the Afghan capital of Kabul on Saturday night, President Joe Biden said in a White House address on Monday evening.
"He carved a trail of murder and violence against American citizens, American service members, American diplomats and American interests," Biden said, describing the Egyptian-born Muslim fundamentalist, who was a surgeon by training, as a "vicious and determined killer" who had been intimately involved in planning the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Al-Zawahri was one of the FBI’s 10 most wanted terrorists. His demise came courtesy of a CIA drone, which fired two Hellfire missiles at the balcony of a Taliban-operated safe house where the al-Qaida leader and his family were staying.
"Now, justice has been delivered," Biden said in his remarks. "And this terrorist leader is no more." Nobody else is believed to have died in the strike.
A senior administration official said that the president was first briefed on intelligence relating to al-Zawahri’s whereabouts on July 1. The official described Biden as "immersed in intelligence," wanting to know about the layout of the safe house, the impact of a strike on other residents and on civilians living nearby. Administration attorneys, meanwhile, determined that al-Zawahri was a "lawful target."
Intelligence "continued to strengthen on a daily basis," the senior administration official said. Biden was finally briefed on July 25, while he was in the midst of his COVID-19 isolation. Taking the counsel of his top national security advisers, he approved the strike.
Biden was vice president when Navy SEALs executed an audacious raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, authorized by then-President Barack Obama in which Osama bin Laden was killed. Biden now has a similar victory over al-Qaida to call his own.
"I think we really won the war on terror now," defense analysis Ben Friedman of Defense Priorities wrote on Twitter upon hearing the news of al-Zawahri’s death.
The killing comes nearly a year after the chaotic departure of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, which ended the two-decade military operation begun by former President George W. Bush. Critics feared that the withdrawal would inhibit the ability of the U.S. to carry out strikes such as the one that took place on Saturday.
Speaking from an isolation prolonged by his rebound COVID-19 infection after having antiviral Paxlovid therapy, Biden vowed resolve in the fight against terrorism.
"We make it clear again tonight that no matter how long it takes, no matter where you hide, if you're a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out," he said.
Although its operational capacity had been degraded in the last decade, al-Qaida remained a potent symbol of anti-American sentiment. And while bin Laden had been the group’s public face, al-Zawahri was its ideological linchpin.
"Understanding al-Zawahri is to understand the most violent form of Islamic radicalism," U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Youssef H. Aboul-Enein wrote in a 2004 analysis, “one where there is no negotiation and an uncompromising attitude in waging an offensive jihad on those he has deemed as enemies of his brand of Islamic fundamentalism."
Al-Zawahri helped plan the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, as well as the bombing of the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen in 2000. The senior administration official who spoke to reporters on Monday evening argued that his death "deals a significant blow to al-Qaida."
Last summer, Biden and top national security officials assured that even without a military presence in Afghanistan, the U.S. would retain the ability to strike at key targets. Monday's news appeared to support that argument, even if the long-term effects of the withdrawal continued to be the subject of intense debate.
"I made a promise to the American people that we would continue to conduct effective counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and beyond," the president said. "We’ve done just that."