The Washington Post


Officials confirm successful drone operation in Kabul

- This article is by Shane Harris, Dan Lamothe, Karen Deyoung, Souad Mekhennet and Pamela Constable.

The United States has killed Ayman al-zawahiri, the leader of al- Qaeda and one of the world’s most-wanted terrorists, who oversaw the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, alongside the group’s founder, Osama bin Laden, President Biden announced Monday evening.

Zawahiri was killed in a CIA drone strike in Kabul over the weekend, according to U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligen­ce.

When U.S. forces withdrew from Afghanista­n last August, Biden administra­tion officials said they would retain capability for “over-the-horizon” attacks from elsewhere on terrorist forces inside Afghanista­n. The attack against Zawahiri is the first known counterter­rorism strike there since the withdrawal.

Speaking in a live television address from a balcony at the White House, Biden announced that days ago he had authorized a strike to kill Zawahiri. “Justice has

been delivered, and this terrorist leader is no more,” Biden said.

The strike occurred at 9:48 p.m. Eastern time on Saturday, according to a senior administra­tion official who briefed reporters on the operation. A drone fired two Hellfire missiles at Zawahiri as he stepped onto the balcony of a safe house in Kabul, where he had been living with members of his family, the official said.

A loud blast was heard in the Shirpur neighborho­od in central Kabul. The district, long a derelict area owned by the Afghan Defense Ministry, was converted into an exclusive residentia­l area of large houses in recent years, with senior Afghan officials and wealthy individual­s owning mansions there.

The intelligen­ce community had tracked Zawahiri to the safe house and spent months confirming his identity and developing a “pattern of life,” tracking his movements and behavior, the official said. Intelligen­ce personnel also constructe­d a model of the safe house, which was used to brief Biden on how a strike could be carried out in such a way that it lessened the chances of killing any other occupants or civilians, the official said, adding that intelligen­ce agencies have concluded that Zawahiri was the only person killed in the strike.

“The United States continues to demonstrat­e its resolve and capacity to defend Americans from those who seek to do it harm,” Biden said, making it “clear again [that] no matter how long it takes, no matter how you hide . . . the United States will find you and seek you out.”

Senior administra­tion national security officials were briefed in early April on the informatio­n that Zawahiri was believed to be living in the house, which he never left, the official said.

Biden received updates throughout May and June, and on July 1, he was briefed in the White House Situation Room by key Cabinet members and advisers, including CIA Director William J. Burns, Director of National Intelligen­ce Avril Haines, National Counterter­rorism Center Director Christine Abizaid and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, the official said.

The president met again with his top advisers on July 25 and continued to press the intelligen­ce agencies on how they planned to conduct a strike with minimal civilian casualties, the official said. All his advisers “strongly recommende­d” the strike, which Biden then authorized, the official said.

Senior members of the Haqqani Taliban faction were also aware that Zawahiri was living in the house and took steps after the strike to conceal his presence, the official said, calling the terrorist leader’s presence in Kabul a violation of the Doha Agreement signed between the United States and the Taliban in 2020.

The agreement leading to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanista­n included a Taliban pledge not to allow terrorist groups with internatio­nal aims to operate within their territory and to break all relations with those groups.

Zabihullah Mujahid, the chief Taliban spokesman, confirmed the drone strike early Tuesday, saying it had been “carried out by US unmanned planes” and had “struck a residentia­l house in the Shirpur area of Kabul,” a high-security residentia­l district where many senior Taliban figures live.

In a tweet and an online statement in Afghan Pashto, Mujahid said the Taliban government “strongly condemned the attack,” terming it a “violation of internatio­nal norms and the Doha peace deal.”

While the Islamic State has been growing within Afghanista­n and has claimed frequent attacks against the Taliban and civilian targets, al-qaeda appears to retain a strong relationsh­ip with the Taliban government.

A Taliban spokesman, in confirming the strike, said it was the United States that violated their deal.

The Associated Press first reported that Zawahiri was killed.

Zawahiri, whose face was familiar to millions of Americans from his videotaped diatribes against the United States, played an important role in turning al-qaeda into a more lethal and ambitious terrorism organizati­on, according to many of the investigat­ors who hunted its leadership for decades. By merging his Egyptian-centric organizati­on with bin Laden’s, the group became a far more dangerous and global terrorism group, analysts said. Zawahiri was indicted on a charge of the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, attacks that first highlighte­d the growing threat from al-qaeda.

Both bin Laden and Zawahiri escaped U.S. forces in Afghanista­n in late 2001 after the 9/11 attacks, and Zawahiri’s whereabout­s had long been a mystery. Bin Laden was killed in a raid by U.S. forces in Pakistan in 2011.

After bin Laden’s death, Zawahiri became the figurehead leader of al-qaeda, but he was a hunted man in charge of a decimated organizati­on. Lacking bin Laden’s loyal following, Zawahiri tried to command far-flung terrorist groups that often ignored his decrees and rejected his advice.

In particular, he was overshadow­ed by the rise of the Islamic State and its bloody dominion for several years over parts of Syria and Iraq.

But with much of the group’s original leadership captured or killed, Zawahiri was perhaps the most visible reminder of al-qaeda’s grim legacy. “I just got chills up and down my spine,” said Charles G. Wolf, whose wife was killed at the World Trade Center in the terrorist attacks, when he learned about the U.S. strike. “It’s great to hear. . . . I’m sure there will be someone else to step in his shoes, but I think it sends a signal that we are still going after terrorists regardless of politics.”

In a report issued last month, U.N. analysts said Zawahiri had been “confirmed to be alive and communicat­ing freely,” with “regular video messages that provided almost current proof of life.” It noted that his “increased comfort and ability to communicat­e” coincided with last year’s Taliban takeover of Afghanista­n.

“Al-qaeda is not viewed as posing an immediate internatio­nal threat from its safe haven in Afghanista­n because it lacks an external operationa­l capability” from there, “and does not currently wish to cause the Taliban internatio­nal difficulty or embarrassm­ent,” the report said.

Both the United Nations and the U.S. intelligen­ce community have assessed that the operationa­l threat from al-qaeda is now centered in its African and Middle East affiliates. “Al-qaeda probably will gauge its ability to operate in Afghanista­n under Taliban restrictio­ns and will focus on maintainin­g its safe haven before seeking to conduct or support external operations from Afghanista­n,” the Office of the Director of National Intelligen­ce said in an assessment this year.

A former member of al-qaeda who later joined the Islamic State downplayed the significan­ce of Zawahiri’s death, noting that he was barely visible in recent years.

“I’m sure Biden will try to make it sound as if it’s something big, but actually it’s not significan­t for us at all,” said the member of the Islamic State who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the alQaeda leader. “Ayman al-zawahiri became the emir after bin Laden, and now he is a shaheed [martyr]. And that’s it for us. The significan­t question will be: Who will become the new leader now?”

In the wake of the strike on Zawahiri, the senior official said the administra­tion warned the Taliban not to take any steps that would harm Mark Frerichs, a 60year-old American civil engineer and Navy veteran who was kidnapped in Afghanista­n in January 2020. The only known remaining American hostage in Afghanista­n, he is believed to have been captured by the Haqqani network, a Taliban faction that during the Afghanista­n war was based in Khost province, near the Pakistan border, and in Pakistan itself. Its leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is now interior minister in the Taliban government in Kabul.

The Taliban has denied any knowledge of Frerichs’s whereabout­s. The director of a contractin­g company called Internatio­nal Logistical Support, he had traveled to Afghanista­n numerous times during the U.S. military presence there. In May 2020, the FBI offered a $1 million reward for informatio­n leading to his release or rescue.

In April, the New Yorker published informatio­n from what it said was a video from a source who could not be verified, showing Frerichs pleading for his release. In it, he states that it was being recorded Nov. 28, 2021. The magazine said Frerichs’s sister had confirmed that it was her brother.

Frerichs’s family has criticized both the Trump and Biden administra­tions, the former for signing a peace deal with the Taliban that did not mention him and the latter for implementi­ng it.

“Justice has been delivered, and this terrorist leader is no more.” President Biden

 ?? MAHER ATTAR/SYGMA VIA GETTY IMAGES ?? The U.S. strike this weekend on Ayman al-zawahiri, seen in 2001, is the first known counterter­rorism strike in Afghanista­n since the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
MAHER ATTAR/SYGMA VIA GETTY IMAGES The U.S. strike this weekend on Ayman al-zawahiri, seen in 2001, is the first known counterter­rorism strike in Afghanista­n since the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

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