Al Qaeda Leader, Successor to Bin Laden, Killed in U.S. Drone Strike

“Justice has been delivered, and this terrorist leader is no more,” Biden says.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Osama bin Laden sits with Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Osama bin Laden sits with Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Then-al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden sits with his advisor and future leader of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in an undated photo at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan that was published Nov. 10, 2001. Photo by Visual News/Getty Images

The United States killed al Qaeda’s top leader in a drone strike in Afghanistan over the weekend, U.S. President Joe Biden announced on Monday evening, dealing the biggest symbolic blow to the terrorist organization since U.S. special operators killed then-al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011.

Ayman al-Zawahiri—who, along with bin Laden, oversaw the terror attacks against the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, and led the terrorist group after bin Laden’s death—was killed in a CIA drone strike in Kabul in the early morning hours of July 31.

“For decades, he was the mastermind behind attacks against Americans,” Biden said in a public address Monday evening announcing Zawahiri’s death. “Now, justice has been delivered, and this terrorist leader is no more.”

The United States killed al Qaeda’s top leader in a drone strike in Afghanistan over the weekend, U.S. President Joe Biden announced on Monday evening, dealing the biggest symbolic blow to the terrorist organization since U.S. special operators killed then-al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011.

Ayman al-Zawahiri—who, along with bin Laden, oversaw the terror attacks against the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, and led the terrorist group after bin Laden’s death—was killed in a CIA drone strike in Kabul in the early morning hours of July 31.

“For decades, he was the mastermind behind attacks against Americans,” Biden said in a public address Monday evening announcing Zawahiri’s death. “Now, justice has been delivered, and this terrorist leader is no more.”

The strike appears to be the first drone strike the United States has carried out in Afghanistan since its chaotic withdrawal from the country last August, when two decades of war ended in defeat for the U.S.-led alliance after the Taliban toppled Afghanistan’s Western-backed government and seized control of the country.

Zawahiri’s death opens a leadership void in one of the world’s most notorious terrorist groups, even as the group has struggled to regain its footing and carry out high-profile attacks after bin Laden’s death.

Senior Taliban officials from the hard-line Haqqani network, which has long maintained close ties with al Qaeda, were aware of Zawahiri’s presence in a safe house in Kabul, a senior Biden administration official told reporters on Monday evening. That is a clear violation of the Doha Agreement struck between the Trump administration and the militant group in 2020—in which the Taliban agreed not to let Afghanistan be used by international terrorist groups —and throws into further question the ability of the United States and its allies to forge a constructive working relationship with the Taliban.

The strike that killed Zawahiri took place in an upscale Kabul neighborhood called Wazir Akbar Khan, which is near Afghan national government buildings and was once the home to many foreign diplomats before the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. The location of the strike raises uncomfortable questions about the Taliban government’s ongoing ties to al Qaeda and casts further doubt on the Taliban’s claims that they have not supported international terrorist groups since taking power.

The senior administration official told reporters the U.S. government assessed that Zawahiri was the only person killed in the strike and that there were no indications of civilian casualties.

This year, U.S. intelligence identified that Zawahiri and his family had relocated to a safe house in Kabul, according to a senior Biden administration official who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the U.S. National Security Council. The official described how, over the course of several months, U.S. intelligence officials became increasingly confident that Zawahiri was at the safe house. “We were able to build a pattern of life through multiple independent sources of information,” the official said. “Once Zawahiri arrived at the location, we are not aware of him ever leaving the safe house. We identified Zawahiri on multiple occasions for sustained periods of time on the balcony where he was ultimately struck.”

Biden received updates on Zawahiri throughout the summer, and on July 1, he was briefed on a proposed operation to target the terrorist leader by key members of Biden’s cabinet, including CIA director William Burns and director of National Intelligence Avril Haines. After weighing the potential risks of the operation—including its impact on U.S. goals in the region, efforts to evacuate at-risk Afghans who previously worked with the United States and its allies, and the ability to secure the release of U.S. hostage Mark Frerichs—the president greenlighted the strike on July 25.

Zawahiri was killed by two Hellfire missiles fired from an unmanned drone early on Sunday morning local time. There were no U.S. personnel on the ground at the time of the attack, the official said.

The strike is the first publicly acknowledged test of the United States’ ability to carry out so-called over-the-horizon counterterrorism efforts following the ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan last year after 20 years of war.

“Many of us worried this would be degraded with the withdrawal. The number of strikes have vastly diminished. But it’s clear we can still do this,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA officer who spent much of his career working on counterterrorism. “The withdrawal opened up Afghanistan to terrorist groups operating freely. So the administration is right—as are the critics.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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