Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has been killed in a CIA drone strike in Afghanistan, US officials say, in the biggest blow to the militant group since its founder Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011.
US President Joe Biden confirmed the deadly strike in an address from the White House on Tuesday morning (Australian time), saying “justice has been delivered”.
He said he had authorised the precision strike in downtown Kabul and that no civilians were killed.
“On Saturday, at my direction, the United States successfully concluded an air strike in Kabul, Afghanistan that killed the emir of al-Qaeda,
Ayman al-Zawahiri,” he said.
“Since the United States delivered justice to bin Laden 11 years ago, al-Zawahiri has been the leader of al-Qaeda.
“From hiding, he coordinated al-Qaeda’s branches and, all around the world, including setting priorities for operational guidance that called for and inspired attacks against US targets. He made videos, including in recent weeks calling for his followers to attack the United States and our allies. Now, justice has been delivered. And this terrorist leader is no more.”
Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor and surgeon, helped co-ordinate the September 11, 2001 attacks in which four civilian planes were hijacked and slammed into the World Trade Centre’s twin towers in New York, the Pentagon near Washington and a Pennsylvania field, killing nearly 3000 people.
US intelligence had determined with “high confidence” that the man killed was Zawahiri, a senior administration official said. There were no other casualties.
“Zawahiri continued to pose an active threat to US persons, interests and national security,” the official said on a conference call.
“His death deals a significant blow to al-Qaeda and will degrade the group’s ability to operate.”
Afghan officials had earlier also confirmed the US raid, reporting a loud explosion echoing across Kabul early on Sunday.
“A house was hit by a rocket in Sherpoor. There were no casualties as the house was empty,” Abdul Nafi Takor, spokesman of the interior ministry, said.
One Taliban source, requesting anonymity, said there were reports of at least one drone flying over Kabul that morning.
Mr Biden said US agents had tracked him to downtown Kabul in recent months, after searching him for more than 20 years.
“After carefully considering clear and convincing evidence of his location, I authorised a precision strike that would remove him from the
battlefield once and for all,” he said.
“This mission was carefully planned, rigorously minimising the risk of harm to other civilians. And one week ago, after being advised that the conditions were optimal, I gave the final approval to go get him. And the mission was a success.”
In Australia, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese confirmed Zawahiri’s death in a statement to Parliament on Tuesday. He said the al-Qaeda leader’s role in the September 11 attacks led to the “murder of nearly 3,000 innocent people, including Australians on American soil in that day that will live in infamy”.
“For two decades, this man fled the consequences of his crimes. Our thoughts today are with the loved ones of all of his victims,” he said.
“May they find some small solace in the knowledge that he cannot cause more grief through his acts of terror, and let terrorists see that Afghanistan will never, ever be a safe haven for their hatred, their terrorism and their attacks on our humanity.”
Zawahiri’s death in a CIA drone strike in the Afghanistan capital will raise questions about whether he was being given sanctuary by the Taliban following its takeover of Kabul in August 2021 as the last US-led troops were leaving Afghanistan after 20 years of war.
The US official said senior Taliban officials were aware of his presence in the city.
He said finding Zawahiri was the result of persistent counterterrorism work. The US identified this year that Zawahiri’s wife, daughter and her children had relocated to a safe house in Kabul, then identified that Zawahiri was there as well, the official said.
“Once Zawahiri arrived at the location, we are not aware of him ever leaving the safe house,” the official said.
He was identified multiple times on the balcony, where he was ultimately struck. He continued to produce videos from the house and some might be released after his death, the official said.
In the past few weeks, Mr Biden convened officials to scrutinise the intelligence. He was updated throughout May and June and was briefed on July 1 on a proposed operation by intelligence leaders.
On July 25 he received an updated report and authorised the strike.
The drone attack is the first known US strike inside Afghanistan since US troops and diplomats left the country a year ago.
The move may bolster the credibility of Washington’s assurances that the US can still address threats from Afghanistan without a military presence there.
In a statement, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed that a strike took place and strongly condemned it, calling it a violation of “international principles”.
With other senior al-Qaeda members, Zawahiri is believed to have plotted the October 12, 2000, attack on the USS Cole naval vessel in Yemen, which killed 17 US sailors and injured more than 30 others, the Rewards for Justice website said.
He was indicted in the US for his role in the August 7, 1998, bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people and wounded more than 5000 others.