US kills al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in drone strike, President Biden says
The United States killed al Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a drone strike in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden has confirmed.
Zawahiri, who just turned 71 years old, had remained a visible international symbol of the group, 11 years after the US killed Osama bin Laden.
At one point, he acted as bin Laden’s personal physician.
He was killed in a counter-terrorism operation carried out by the CIA in the Afghan capital of Kabul on Sunday.
He and Osama Bin Laden plotted the 9/11 attacks together, and he was one of America’s “most wanted terrorists”.
Mr Biden said Zawahiri had “carved a trail of murder and violence against American citizens”.
“Since the United States delivered justice to bin Laden 11 years ago, Zawahiri has been a leader of al-Qaeda,” Mr Biden said. “From hiding, he co-ordinated al-Qaeda’s branches and all around the world, including setting priorities for providing operational guidance and calling for and inspired attacks against US targets.”
“Now justice has been delivered and this terrorist leader is no more,” he added.
Officials said Zawahiri was on the balcony of a safe house when the drone fired two missiles at him.
Other family members were present, but they were unharmed and only Zawahiri was killed in the attack, they added.
Mr Biden said he had given the final approval for the “precision strike” on the 71-year-old Egyptian after months of planning.
His killing will bring closure to families of the nearly 3,000 victims of the 2001 attacks, Mr Biden added.
“No matter how long it takes, no matter where you hide, if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out,” said Mr Biden, adding that “we shall never waver from defending our nation and its people”.
He insisted that Afghanistan would never again become a safe haven for terrorists.
A Taliban spokesman described the US operation as a clear violation of international principles – but did not mention Zawahiri.
“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,” the spokesman added.
However, US officials maintained that the operation had had a legal basis.
The killing of Zawahiri comes nearly a year after US troops completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan on the orders of Mr Biden, bringing an end to a 20-year military presence there.
Under a 2020 peace deal with the US, the Taliban agreed not to allow al-Qaeda or any other extremist group to operate in areas under their control.
However, the Taliban and al-Qaeda are long-time allies and US officials said the Taliban were aware of Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul.
In background briefings, US intelligence officers said Taliban affiliates had visited the safe house after the strike in an attempt to cover up evidence of his presence there.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that by hosting and sheltering Zawahiri in Kabul, the Taliban had “grossly violated” the peace agreement.
The drone strike is the first known US intervention inside Afghanistan since the military pullout last August and, despite the withdrawal, the decades-old “war on terror” grinds on, the BBC’s North America Correspondent John Sudworth observes.
Days before the withdrawal, a miscalculated US drone strike killed 10 innocent people in Kabul, including an aid worker and seven children. The US said it had been a “tragic mistake” and had been aiming to target a local branch of the Islamic State group.
Who was Ayman al-Zawahiri
Al-Zawahiri, was often referred to as the chief ideologue of al-Qaeda.
An eye surgeon who helped found the Egyptian Islamic Jihad militant group, he took over the leadership of al-Qaeda following the killing by US forces of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011.
Before that, Zawahiri was considered Bin Laden’s right-hand man and believed by some experts to have been the “operational brains” behind the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States.
Zawahiri was number two – behind only Bin Laden – in the 22 “most wanted terrorists” list announced by the US government in 2001 and had a $25m (£16m) bounty on his head.
In the years after the attacks, Zawahiri emerged as al-Qaeda’s most prominent spokesman, appearing in 16 videos and audiotapes in 2007 – four times as many as Bin Laden – as the group tried to radicalise and recruit Muslims around the world.
His killing in last weekend’s attack in Kabul was not the first time the US had sought to target Zawahiri.
In January 2006, he was the target of a US missile strike near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.
The attack killed four al-Qaeda members, but Zawahiri survived and appeared on video two weeks later, warning US President George W Bush that neither he nor “all the powers on earth” could bring his death “one second closer”.
Born in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, on 19 June 1951, Zawahiri came from a respectable middle-class family of doctors and scholars.
His grandfather, Rabia al-Zawahiri, was the grand imam of al-Azhar, the centre of Sunni Islamic learning in the Middle East, while one of his uncles was the first secretary-general of the Arab League.
Zawahiri became involved in political Islam while still at school and was arrested at the age of 15 for being a member of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood – Egypt’s oldest and largest Islamist organisation.
His political activities did not, however, stop him from studying medicine at Cairo University’s medical school, from which he graduated in 1974 and obtained a masters degree in surgery four years later.
His father Mohammed, who died in 1995, was a pharmacology professor at the same school.
Zawahiri initially continued the family tradition, building up a medical clinic in a suburb of Cairo, but soon became attracted to radical Islamist groups which were calling for the overthrow of the Egyptian government.
When Egyptian Islamic Jihad was founded in 1973, he joined.
In 1981, he was rounded up along with hundreds of other suspected members of the group after several members of the group dressed as soldiers assassinated President Anwar Sadat during a military parade in Cairo. Sadat had angered Islamist activists by signing a peace deal with Israel, and by arresting hundreds of his critics in an earlier security crackdown.
During the mass trial, Zawahiri emerged as a leader of the defendants and was filmed telling the court: “We are Muslims who believe in our religion. We are trying to establish an Islamic state and Islamic society.”
Although he was cleared of involvement in Sadat’s assassination, Zawahiri was convicted of the illegal possession of arms, and served a three-year sentence.
According to fellow Islamist prisoners, Zawahiri was regularly tortured and beaten by the authorities during his time in jail in Egypt, an experience which is said to have transformed him into a fanatical and violent extremist.
Following his release in 1985, Zawahiri left for Saudi Arabia.
Soon afterwards, he headed for Peshawar in Pakistan and later to neighbouring Afghanistan, where he established a faction of Egyptian Islamic Jihad while working as a doctor in the country during the Soviet occupation.
Zawahiri took over the leadership of Egyptian Islamic Jihad after it re-emerged in 1993, and was a key figure behind a series of attacks by the group on Egyptian government ministers, including the Prime Minister, Atif Sidqi.
The group’s campaign to topple the government and set up an Islamic state in the country during the mid-1990s led to the deaths of more than 1,200 Egyptians.
In 1997, the US state department named him as leader of the Vanguards of Conquest group – a faction of Islamic Jihad thought to have been behind the massacre of foreign tourists in Luxor the same year.
Two years later, he was sentenced to death in absentia by an Egyptian military court for his role in the group’s many attacks.
Zawahiri is thought to have travelled around the world during the 1990s in search of sanctuary and sources of funding.
In the years following the Soviet withdrawal of Afghanistan, he is believed to have lived in Bulgaria, Denmark and Switzerland, and sometimes used a false passport to travel to the Balkans, Austria, Yemen, Iraq, Iran and the Philippines.
In December 1996, he reportedly spent six months in Russian custody after he was caught without a valid visa in Chechnya.
According to an account allegedly written by Zawahiri, the Russian authorities failed to have the Arabic texts found on his computer translated and he was able to keep his identity secret.
In 1997, Zawahiri is believed to have moved to the Afghan city of Jalalabad, where Osama Bin Laden was based.
A year later, Egyptian Islamic Jihad joined five other radical Islamist militant groups, including Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, in forming the World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders.
The front’s first proclamation included a fatwa, or religious edict, permitting the killing of US civilians. Six months later, two simultaneous attacks destroyed the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 223 people.
Zawahiri was one of the figures whose satellite telephone conversations were used as proof that Bin Laden and al-Qaeda were behind the plot.
Two weeks after the attacks, the US bombed the group’s training camps in Afghanistan. The next day, Zawahiri telephoned a Pakistani journalist and said: “Tell America that its bombings, its threats, and its acts of aggression do not frighten us. The war has only just begun.”
In the years following Bin Laden’s death, US air strikes killed a succession of Zawahiri’s deputies, weakening his ability to coordinate globally.
And in recent years, Zawahiri had become a remote and marginal figure, only occasionally issuing messages.
The US will herald his death as a victory, particularly after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, but Zawahiri held relatively little sway as new groups and movements such as Islamic State have become increasingly influential.
A new al-Qaeda leader will no doubt emerge, but he will likely have even less influence than his predecessor.
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