Los Angeles Times

U.S. kills terrorist leader in drone attack

‘Justice has been delivered,’ Biden says of strike on Al Qaeda chief and 9/11 plotter.

- By Eli Stokols

WASHINGTON — President Biden announced Monday that Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri, a key plotter of the Sept. 11 attacks, was killed in a CIA drone strike he ordered targeting the terrorist leader in Afghanista­n.

One of the world’s most wanted terrorists, Zawahiri helped oversee the 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, working closely with former Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, and had led the group over the last decade since Bin Laden’s death.

The 71-year-old Egyptian was killed in a drone strike at 6:48 p.m. Saturday at a residentia­l location in Kabul, which fell to the Taliban a year ago almost immediatel­y after Biden ordered the last U.S. forces to withdraw — a developmen­t that many feared would lead to more terrorist activity in Afghanista­n’s capital.

“Justice has been delivered, and this terrorist leader is no more,” Biden said from the Blue Room balcony, as he remained in seclusion inside the White House residence after testing positive for the coronaviru­s in a rebound case.

“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.”

Afghanista­n, Biden continued, “can’t be a launching pad against the United States. We’re going to see to it that won’t happen.”

A decade after Navy SEALs killed Bin Laden during a daring raid on his heavily fortified compound on the outskirts of Abbottabad, Pakistan, Zawahiri’s whereabout­s had remained a mystery.

But U.S. intelligen­ce officials, a senior administra­tion official said, tracked Zawahiri and his family to a safe house in downtown Kabul where they moved earlier this year.

Over the next several months, officials observed Zawahiri on a balcony, where he was eventually struck and killed in a plan devised to minimize the risk to his family and civilians in the heavily populated area.

Biden, the official said,

was first briefed in April, received updates on the intelligen­ce throughout May and June and gave the final goahead for the attack after a meeting with top Cabinet and national security advisors on July 25, where all the participan­ts expressed support for the mission.

Five days later, a drone carried out the attack, firing two Hellfire missiles at Zawahiri on the balcony, killing him alone, according to the official.

Unlike the operation targeting Bin Laden, which lasted 40 minutes and ended with five people killed, including one of Bin Laden’s sons, the drone strike was carried out without any U.S. military presence on the ground in Afghanista­n — “carefully planned,” Biden said, to minimize collateral damage.

“There were no civilian casualties,” he said, praising the intelligen­ce officials who helped plan and execute the strike.

The Taliban was long aware of Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul, the senior administra­tion official said. The official added that members of the Haqqani network, a terrorist group that is part of the Taliban government, whisked away the terrorist leader’s relatives shortly after the strike in an effort to hide their presence in the city.

The group’s harboring of Zawahiri, the administra­tion official added, amounted to a violation of the Doha agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban, under which the group agreed to not cooperate with terrorist groups.

As vice president, Biden — long skeptical about the military’s commitment to the war in Afghanista­n — had famously cautioned President Obama about the risks of the 2011 Bin Laden raid.

Ending the war there after 20 years of conflict was among Biden’s top first-year priorities, and he pushed ahead with the drawdown in the face of warnings from the Pentagon, scoffing at the potential for the Afghan government to fall to the Taliban just weeks before it did. The foreign policy debacle forced the White House to scramble to airlift thousands of vulnerable Afghans to safety, as a president who ran on experience and competency saw his approval drop.

The successful strike on Zawahiri, Biden said, validated his own rationale for ending the U.S. presence in Afghanista­n, which was predicated in part on a belief that counter-terrorism operations could be carried out without a permanent presence on the ground.

“I made the decision that after 20 years of war, the United States no longer needed thousands of boots on the ground in Afghanista­n to protect America from terrorists who seek to do us harm,” the president said. “I made a promise to the American people that we would continue to conduct effective counter-terrorism operations in Afghanista­n and beyond. We’ve done just that.”

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (DN.Y.) praised Biden for “decisive action that brings final justice to a loathsome mass murderer ... who helped orchestrat­e the coldbloode­d murder of thousands of my fellow New Yorkers on 9/11.”

But several Republican­s, while praising the intelligen­ce officials involved, criticized Biden for last year’s messy pullout of Afghanista­n, suggesting that Zawahiri’s harboring by the Taliban in Kabul underscore­s how the situation there has made the world less safe.

“Our chaotic and deadly withdrawal from Afghanista­n opened the door for Al Qaeda to operate freely inside the country to conduct external operations against the United States and our allies again,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the ranking GOP member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfiel­d) called for a classified briefing “to discuss the resurgence of Al Qaeda in the region over the past year.”

Biden, in his brief primetime address to the country, reminded the nation of Zawahiri’s central role in numerous Al Qaeda attacks, including the 2000 bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole in Yemen and of course Sept. 11.

Speaking to relatives of those killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and aboard United Flight 93 that crashed in Shanksvill­e, Pa., Biden expressed hope that Zawahiri’s death “will be one more measure of closure.”

 ?? “THIS TERRORIST Jim Watson Pool Photo ?? leader is no more,” President Biden said in announcing the U.S. operation against Sept. 11 plotter Ayman Zawahiri.
“THIS TERRORIST Jim Watson Pool Photo leader is no more,” President Biden said in announcing the U.S. operation against Sept. 11 plotter Ayman Zawahiri.

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