He never achieved the household name status of his predecessor, but al-Zawahri’s killing is nonetheless a major win for the United States in the ongoing struggle against Islamist terrorism, especially as the United Nations warns that the terrorist group is outpacing its peers — like the Islamic State — as a long-term global threat.
In a statement to reporters, a senior Biden administration official said “over the weekend, the United States conducted a counterterrorism operation against a significant Al Qaeda target in Afghanistan. The operation was successful and there were no civilian casualties.”
President Joe Biden is due to give a speech about the operation later Monday.
The announcement comes nearly a year after the United States finished withdrawing from Afghanistan, the country it invaded in 2001 following the Sept. 11 attacks masterminded by bin Laden.
The withdrawal devolved into a chaotic situation — and one of Biden’s worst stretches as president — as the U.S. was forced to carry out a major evacuation of more than 100,000 people trying to flee the country after an astonishingly quick takeover by Taliban militants. The United States has insisted that the Taliban not allow Afghan soil to be used by terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda.
The Al-Zawahiri killing gives the administration some good news to trumpet ahead of a grim anniversary.
Col. Joseph Buccino, a spokesperson for U.S. Central Command, declined to comment on the specifics of the strike. “We have no operational information at this time,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Pentagon said the military has not recently conducted any strikes in the area. The National Security Council declined to comment.
The Senate Intelligence committee has been briefed on the strike, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told POLITICO. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the operation “an important accomplishment,” adding “This strike should be a message to terrorists near and far: if you conspire to kill Americans, we will find and kill you.”
Al-Zawahri’s presence in Kabul is likely to worsen relations between Washington and the Taliban, but it also boosts the U.S. claim that it still has what it calls “over the horizon” capability when it comes to intelligence on terrorist activity in Afghanistan — despite no longer having combat troops there.
“The strike that killed Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is a major success of U.S. counter-terrorism efforts. A result of countless hours of intelligence collection over many years,” said Mick Mulroy, a former Pentagon official and retired CIA paramilitary operations officer.
Calling the killing “a landmark operation,” former top Obama administration official Ben Rhodes told POLITICO it “also demonstrates that Biden didn’t need to keep troops in Afghanistan to maintain a counterterrorism capability.”
A South Asian official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, expressed shock that al-Zawahri was “roaming in Kabul.”
For years, terrorism researchers and others had believed that al-Zawahri was hiding in Pakistan — where bin Laden was found. Some observers thought al-Zawahri was likely somewhere in the teeming Pakistani city of Karachi.
For the Biden administration, “this [strike] will deflect a bit from issues like how the Afghanistan withdrawal was a disaster and reduced U.S. capability on the counterterrorism front,” the South Asian official said.
However, a congressional aid noted that Al Qaeda is still a powerful force in Afghanistan, even without Al-Zawahri.
“While it’s great they got one of the hundreds of Al Qaeda members in Afghanistan, the Taliban regime the Biden administration enabled to come to power is hosting senior Al Qaeda leaders in downtown Kabul,” the person said. “The Biden administration is paying that same regime millions.”
Al-Zawahri, a physician, founded Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a militant group that merged with al Qaeda in the late 1990s. He had been indicted for his suspected role in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.
It was not immediately clear who would succeed al-Zawahri as the leader of the terrorist group.
In December 2020, Brookings Institution terrorism expert Daniel Byman said one of the big questions of his leadership was how he would bequeath control to his successor. “For now, there is no obvious successor with Zawahri’s broad name recognition and respect within the jihadi world,” he wrote, adding: “Any successor will also benefit from the decline of ISIS, which is far weaker and less inspiring now that it has lost the caliphate.”
Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesperson for the Taliban, tweeted Monday that “an air strike was carried out on a residential house in Sherpur area of Kabul city.”
Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States who is now with the Hudson Institute, said that one “question now would be, whether the Taliban enabled Zawahiri’s elimination or the U.S. did it without assistance.”
Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.