Al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahri—considered a major force behind the September 11 attacks—was killed over the weekend by an American drone strike in Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul, President Joe Biden announced Monday evening.
Biden said al-Zawahri “carved a trail of murder and violence against American citizens,” most notably by serving as al-Qaeda’s second-in-command on September 11 and as the group’s top leader for over a decade.
No civilians were killed in the drone strike, according to Biden.
Al-Zawahri was killed by two Hellfire missiles while at a safe house, and although members of his family were also present at home, they were not targeted or harmed, a senior administration official told reporters.
American intelligence agencies tracked down al-Zawahri’s location in downtown Kabul earlier this year, and Biden approved the precision strike a week ago, the president said.
The senior administration official described the killing as a major blow to al-Qaeda’s central organization, which has diminished in power in recent years but is still vocally committed to attacking U.S. and Western targets.
The strike also raises questions about al-Qaeda’s still-lingering ties with the Taliban, which took over Afghanistan last August: Al-Zawahri moved to Kabul in the last year, Biden said, and the Haqqani network—a U.S.-designated terrorist group with links to the Taliban—appeared to be aware of al-Zawahri’s presence, according to the administration official.
A Taliban spokesperson confirmed on Twitter earlier Monday a U.S. drone struck a residential neighborhood in Kabul on Sunday, a move the group condemned (the Taliban wasn’t notified of the strike ahead of time, the senior administration official said).
A surgeon by trade, al-Zawahri originally hailed from Cairo and led a faction of a group called the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which sought to overthrow Egypt’s secular government, according to the nonpartisan 9/11 Commission report. He joined forces with al-Qaeda by the late 1990s, and began serving as Osama bin Laden’s top deputy as the group planned a series of terrorist attacks against U.S. targets that culminated in the September 11 attacks, which killed almost 3,000 people. Al-Zawahri and bin Laden were based in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan at the time of the 2001 hijackings, and both men narrowly survived as U.S. forces responded by toppling the Taliban government and attacking al-Qaeda units. In the years following the attacks, al-Qaeda released occasional videos featuring al-Zawahri, who was widely believed to be hiding in Pakistan’s tribal areas. He took over as the group’s top leader after U.S. forces killed bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011, and despite the U.S. government offering a $25 million reward for his capture, al-Zawahri remained at large for more than a decade.
The death of al-Zawahri marks the most significant airstrike on an Afghan target since the Taliban retook control of the country amid the U.S. military’s withdrawal almost a year ago. The Biden Administration has pledged to retain the ability to carry out counterterrorism strikes in Afghanistan even though U.S. troops are no longer present on the ground. Days before the U.S. withdrawal ended last August, 10 Kabul civilians were killed in a botched drone strike targeting the Islamic State’s offshoot in Afghanistan.
This is a developing story; it will be updated.