Questions for the Taliban as Biden announces death of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri

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President Joe Biden has announced that the United States conducted a drone strike that killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda.

Mr Biden, who is currently in isolation after having a rebound case of Covid-19, said from the White House balcony that he approved the mission, which was carried out in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.

“Now, justice has been delivered,” Mr Biden said. “And this terrorist leader is no more. People around the world no longer need to fear the vicious and determined killer.”

Mr Biden outlined in his address how the al-Qaeda leader had been responsible not just for the deaths on 9/11 but also the USS Cole bombing, which killed 17 US sailors and the bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

“It carved a trail of murder and violence against American citizens, American servicemembers, American diplomats and American interest,” the president said.

“We 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,” he said.

The drone killing raises questions for many, not least the Taliban, which had promised in the 2020 Doha Agreement on the terms of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan that they would not harbour al-Qaida members.

The Taliban initially sought to describe the strike as America violating the Doha deal, which also includes a Taliban pledge not to shelter those seeking to attack the US — something al-Zawahri had done for years in internet videos and online screeds.

The Taliban have yet to say who was killed in the strike.“The killing of Ayman al-Zawahri has raised many questions,” said one Pakistani intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to The Associated Press.

“The Taliban were aware of his presence in Kabul, and if they were not aware of it, they need to explain their position,” the official said.

A senior Biden administration official who briefed reporters on the details of the successful operation said the strike against al-Zawahiri was “several years” in the making.

Ayman al-Zawahiri (AFP/ GETTY IMAGES)
Ayman al-Zawahiri (AFP/ GETTY IMAGES)

The official said the US intelligence community had identified members of the al-Qaeda leader’s family, including his wife, daughter and children, at a safe house in Kabul this year.

Intelligence officials were able to “increase [their] confidence” that al-Zawahiri was “present” at the Kabul safe house despite family members exercising “long-standing terrorist tradecraft”.

“We identified al-Zawahiri on multiple occasions, for sustained periods of time, on the balcony where he was ultimately struck,” the official added. The official said that Mr Biden was first briefed on the developing intelligence regarding al-Zawahiri’s location in early April, and stressed that intelligence officials took great pains to minimise risk of civilian casualties as well as consider the ramifications of conducting a drone strike against a building in downtown Kabul.

The official said Mr Biden continued to receive updates on the development of intelligence regarding al-Zawahiri through May and June of this year, and during that time “convened … several meetings” with “key advisers and cabinet members” at which they “carefully scrutinise[d] the intelligence and evaluate[d] the best course of action”.

The president was then briefed on a “proposed operation” against the al-Qaeda leader on 1 July during a White House Situation Room meeting alongside Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, National Counterterrorism Centre Director Christine Abizaid, and his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan.

Mr Biden gave the final order authorising the mission after a 25 July meeting with “key Cabinet members and advisers”.

“At the conclusion of the meeting, the President authorised a precise tailored airstrike on the condition that a strike minimize to the greatest extent possible the risk of civilian casualties. This authorisation meant that the US government could conduct an airstrike once an opportunity was available,” the official said, adding that it was carried out at 9.48 pm ET using two AGM-114 “Hellfire” missiles fired from a US drone.

The official said al-Zawahiri’s death “deals a significant blow to al-Qaeda and will degrade the group’s ability to operate including against the US homeland”.

“This mission was carefully planned, rigorously minimize the risk of harm to other civilians,” Mr Biden said during his speech. “And one week ago, after being advised the conditions were optimal. I gave the final approval to go get him and the mission was a success.”

Mr Biden’s announcement comes on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the United States’ exit from Afghanistan. Mr Biden’s approval ratings took a steep tumble after the Taliban took over the country quicker than expected and after 13 US servicemembers died in an explosion at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.

“I made a promise to the American people, that we continue to conduct effective counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and beyond. We've done just that,” he said.

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