Al-Zawahri was one of the al-Qaeda leaders behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks and a close confidant of Osama Bin Laden, who was killed by U.S. special forces in 2011.
“Now justice has been delivered and this terrorist leader is no more,” President Joe Biden said in a nationally televised address Monday evening. “No matter how long it takes, no matter how long you hide, if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out.” He added that Afghanistan “can’t be a launching pad against the United States.”
According to Biden, intelligence officials tracked al-Zawahri and his family to a home in a crowded area of Kabul earlier this year. The president approved the operation, which took place Sunday, last week. The New York Times reported that the terrorist leader was killed by two Hellfire missiles while standing on a balcony of the home. A senior administration official addressing a pool of reporters said that the “operation was successful and there were no civilian casualties.”
Over the weekend, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed that a U.S. drone strike had taken place in the capital of Kabul, saying the group “strongly condemn[ed]” the attack and called it “a clear violation of international principles and the Doha Agreement.”
The death of al-Zawahiri, one of the last remaining al-Qaeda leadership figures from the 9/11 era, raises questions about its future leadership. Al-Zawahiri presided over the terrorist group since the U.S. killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011. Many analysts expected that Hamza Bin Laden, one of the terror leader’s sons, would take over the leadership of al-Qaeda, but the U.S. claimed to have killed him in a 2019 strike, effectively ending the Bin Laden legacy of al-Qaeda leadership.
The strike marks a somewhat rare return to operations in Afghanistan for U.S. forces, which left the country in a chaotic exit in August 2021. At the time, President Biden pledged in a speech that his administration would “maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan” despite the withdrawal. U.S. counterterrorism policy in Afghanistan, Biden said, would be conducted with so-called “over-the-horizon capabilities” that “can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground.”
Al-Zawahiri rose to prominence in al-Qaeda after he fled Egypt for Afghanistan, having been imprisoned for his association with jihadists involved with the assassination of Anwar al Sadat.. In Afghanistan, he met Osama Bin Laden and, according to contemporaries, was influential in Bin Laden’s views in the early days of al-Qaeda and helped push the Saudi terror leaders towards a strategy that included targeting the U.S., rather than just Middle Eastern governments. Zawahiri’s own terror group, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, merged with al-Qaeda in 2001, weeks before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, cementing his role as al-Qaeda’s deputy leader.
In the years since the U.S. killing of Bin Laden, al-Zawahiri appeared to pin the group’s fortunes on the civil war in Syria, where an al-Qaeda franchise named Jabhat al-Nusra gained strength. But local jihadists eventually broke with the al-Qaeda brand in an apparent attempt to reduce American concern and pressure on its operations. The Islamic State, an offshoot of al-Qaeda’s Iraq franchise, eventually displaced both al-Qaeda and al-Zawahiri as the leaders of global jihadism, leaving the Egyptian doctor with a sparse bench of leaders and affiliates relative to al-Qaeda’s early post-9/11 years.