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Al-Qaeda chief killed in US drone attack at Kabul hideout

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A United States drone strike killed Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri at a hideout in Kabul, President Joe Biden said Monday, declaring “justice had been delivered” to the families of the 9/11 attacks.

Ayman al-Zawahiri

Zawahiri’s assassination is the biggest blow to Al-Qaeda since US special forces killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, and calls into question the Taliban’s promise not to harbor militant groups.

It was the first known over-the-horizon strike by the US on a target in Afghanistan since Washington withdrew its forces from the country on August 31 last year, days after the Taliban swept back to power.

The Taliban condemned the drone strike Tuesday but made no mention of casualties nor did they name Zawahiri.

“Justice has been delivered and this terrorist leader is no more,” Biden said in a somber televised address, adding he hoped Zawahiri’s death would bring “closure” to families of the 3,000 people killed in the US on September 11, 2001.

Zawahiri was believed to be the mastermind who steered Al-Qaeda’s operations—including the 9/11 attacks—as well as bin Laden’s personal doctor.

A senior administration official said the 71-year-old Egyptian was on the balcony of a three-story house in the Afghan capital when targeted by two precision-guided Hellfire missiles, which were launched at 6:18 a.m. Sunday, Kabul time.

The missiles appear not to have been ordinary Hellfires, whose high explosives could have destroyed the home.

“We identified Zawahiri on multiple occasions for sustained periods of time on the balcony where he was ultimately struck,” the official said.

The house is in Sherpur, one of Kabul’s most affluent neighborhoods, with several villas occupied by high-ranking Taliban officials and commanders.

The Taliban’s interior ministry previously denied reports circulating on social media of a drone strike, telling AFP a rocket struck “an empty house” in Kabul, causing no casualties.

Early Tuesday, however, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted that an “aerial attack” was carried out.

“The nature of the incident was not revealed at first,” he said.

“The security and intelligence agencies of the Islamic Emirate investigated the incident and found in their preliminary investigations that the attack was carried out by American drones.”

Despite a $25 million US bounty on his head, al-Zawahiri apparently felt comfortable enough with the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan to move into a home in Kabul where he would regularly appear out in the open, on his balcony.

But the US government had not given up its pursuit of one of the planners of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the heir to Osama bin Laden.

US officials described an operation as meticulously planned as that which killed bin Laden in his Pakistan hideout in 2011.

That the leader of the violent jihadist group was in Afghanistan was not surprising: since the hardline Islamist Taliban regained control in August, Al-Qaeda has felt more at home, analysts say.

But finding him was still hard.

“For several years the US government has been aware of a network that we assessed supported Zawahiri,” a senior administration official told reporters.

But it was only this year that US intelligence learned that his family, his wife, his daughter, and her children had moved to the Afghan capital.

They were careful, the official said, exercising “longstanding terrorist tradecraft” to prevent anyone from tracking them to the Qaeda leader.

Still, eventually, Zawahiri showed up and never left.

“We identified Zawahiri on multiple occasions for sustained periods of time on the balcony,” the official said.

An attack plan was developed over May and June. The United States constantly monitored the multi-story residence—just how the official would not say—to understand the family’s pattern of life.

They studied the construction of the home, aiming to hit Zawahiri without threatening the building’s structural integrity, to minimize the risk to civilians.

Defense and intelligence officials finalized the plan in June and presented it to Biden in the White House on July 1, using a detailed model of the residence, as was done before the bin Laden raid.

Biden asked detailed questions on the structure, weather issues, and the risk to civilians, the official said.

Finally, on July 25, Biden—still ill with a bout of COVID-19—made the decision.

It took place with key cabinet officials joining the final briefing, echoing the April 28, 2011 White House meeting where President Barack Obama decided to deploy US special operations troops to enter Pakistan and get bin Laden.

At that time Biden was vice president, and he expressed doubts. The risks of things going wrong were high, bin Laden had not been clearly identified, and relations with Pakistan could suffer, he later recalled.

With Zawahiri, however, no US troops would enter the country, Zawahiri was clearly identified, and relations with the Taliban were next to nil.

At the end of the discussion on July 25, Biden—as Obama had done 11 years earlier—asked each participant for their view.

“All strongly recommended approval of this target,” and Biden gave the go-ahead, the official said.

Although Biden did not mention the Taliban in his televised address, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said “by hosting and sheltering” Zawahiri, the Islamist group had “grossly violated the Doha Agreement” which paved the way for America’s withdrawal.

Zabihullah, in turn, accused Washington of breaking the 2020 deal.

“Such actions are a repetition of the failed experiences of the past 20 years and are against the interests of the United States of America, Afghanistan, and the region,” he said.

Zawahiri, who grew up in a comfortable Cairo household before turning to violent radicalism, had been on the run since the 9/11 attacks. He took over Al-Qaeda after bin Laden was killed.

News of his death comes a month before the first anniversary of the final withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, leaving the country in the hands of the Taliban insurgency that fought Western forces for two decades.

Under the Doha deal, the Taliban promised not to allow Afghanistan to be used again as a launchpad for international jihadism, but experts believe the group never broke ties with Al-Qaeda.

“What we know is that the senior Haqqani Taliban were aware of his presence in Kabul,” the senior US official said.

Afghan Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani also heads the feared Haqqani Network, a brutal subset of the Taliban blamed for some of the worst violence of the past 20 years, and which has been described by US officials as a “veritable arm” of Pakistani intelligence.

In Sherpur, locals told AFP they long thought the targeted house—surrounded by high walls and barbed wire, and now with green tarpaulin covering the balcony where Zawahiri was believed to have been killed—was empty.

“We have not seen anybody living there for almost a year,” said an employee of a nearby office.

“It has always been dark, with not a single bulb lit.”

Some residents found it hard to believe that Zawahiri had been hiding in their midst.

“It’s just propaganda,” Fahim Shah, 66, told AFP.

“They should show to the people and to the world that ‘we had hit this man and here is the evidence,’” added Abdul Kabir.

Zawahiri lacked the potent charisma that helped bin Laden rally jihadists around the world but willingly channeled his analytical skills into the Al-Qaeda cause.

Still, the group is believed to have been degraded since the US invasion of Afghanistan, and the White House official said Zawahiri was “one of the last remaining figures who carried this kind of significance”.

The organisation is “at a crossroads,” said Soufan Center researcher Colin Clarke.

“Despite Zawahiri’s leadership, which minimized AQ’s losses while rebuilding, the group still faces serious challenges going forward. For one, there’s the question of who will lead Al-Qaeda after Zawahiri’s gone.”

Zawahiri’s father was a renowned physician and his grandfather was a prayer leader at Cairo’s Al-Azhar institute, the highest authority for Sunni Muslims.

He became involved with Egypt’s radical Islamist community at a young age and published several books which came for many to symbolize the movement.

He left Egypt in the mid-1980s, heading for Pakistan’s northwestern city of Peshawar where the resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was based.

Thousands of Islamist fighters were flooding into Afghanistan at the time, setting the stage for Zawahiri’s first meeting with bin Laden.

In 1998 he became one of five signatories to bin Laden’s “fatwa” calling for attacks against Americans.

Jihadist monitor SITE said some militants were questioning the veracity of the report he had been killed, while others believed Zawahiri had achieved his desire of “martyrdom.”

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