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Killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri

Killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri
Part of the Afghanistan conflict and the war on terror
TypeDrone strike
Location
Near Sherpur, Kabul, Afghanistan

34°32′03″N 69°10′33″E / 34.53417°N 69.17583°E / 34.53417; 69.17583Coordinates: 34°32′03″N 69°10′33″E / 34.53417°N 69.17583°E / 34.53417; 69.17583
Planned byUnited States
TargetAyman al-Zawahiri
Date31 July 2022 (2022-07-31)
c. 6:18 a.m. (UTC+04:30)
Executed by Central Intelligence Agency
CasualtiesAyman al-Zawahiri

Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of the Salafi-jihadist group al-Qaeda, was killed by a United States drone strike on 31 July 2022 in Kabul, Afghanistan. He was the successor of Osama bin Laden, who was killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan on 2 May 2011. Al-Zawahiri, who had helped to plan the September 11 attacks against the U.S., had gone into hiding following the attacks, and was located by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) months before the assassination. After receiving authorization from U.S. president Joe Biden to initiate the strike, the CIA fired two Hellfire missiles at the balcony of al-Zawahiri's house, killing him.

The strike came nearly a year after the conclusion of the War in Afghanistan. U.S. officials called al-Zawahiri's presence in Afghanistan a violation of the agreement for the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, under which the Taliban would not allow al-Qaeda members any sanctuary. Following the strike, members of the Haqqani network attempted to cover up al-Zawahiri's death, although the U.S. had already confirmed it. In response to the strike, Biden released a statement announcing al-Zawahiri's death, calling the strike a "deliverance of justice".

Background

Ayman al-Zawahiri was a leader of the extremist militant organization al-Qaeda and the deputy to its leader Osama bin Laden. He had planned the September 11 attacks, carried out on the United States on 11 September 2001, alongside bin Laden. After the attacks, American President George W. Bush released a list of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Most Wanted Terrorists, designating al-Zawahiri as the second most wanted behind bin Laden. While bin Laden led al-Qaeda, many observers saw al-Zawahiri as being responsible for its operations. He however eluded an international manhunt and assassination attempts under Presidents Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

In late 2001, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri eluded the grasp of American forces during their invasion of Afghanistan, which al-Qaeda used as a base under the rule of the Taliban. Bin Laden was killed in an American raid in Pakistan in 2011, with al-Zawahiri taking over a weakened al-Qaeda after years of military operations against it. In 2016, it was reported that he had gone to extreme lengths to evade American forces and American officials believed he was hiding in the area along the Durand Line, the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, using a green screen to mask his surroundings while delivering video messages.

After nearly 20 years of war, the U.S. government negotiated a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban, which was accepted by Trump's successor Joe Biden, under which the Taliban agreed not to provide a safe haven for individuals involved with al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations and the U.S. agreed to only conduct military operations in Afghanistan with the consent of the Taliban government. As American forces started withdrawing, the Taliban quickly recaptured Afghanistan in 2021. A drone strike in Kabul, carried out by the U.S. while evacuating, caused the deaths of ten civilians. While it denied the error, it was forced to acknowledge it after an exposé by The New York Times. Since then it had started being more careful about preventing civilian deaths.

Preparation

President Biden meets with his national security team to discuss the counterterrorism operation to take out al-Zawahiri.

After the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, al-Zawahiri's family relocated to a safe house in the city according to American officials, who had learnt about it in 2022. They had started tracking his family about six to seven months before the assassination and eventually learnt that al-Zawahiri himself had moved there from Pakistan as well. He never left the safe house after arriving there, and his daily habits were tracked by the U.S. Intelligence Community for months, so they could confirm that it was indeed him. The building is located in Sherpur, a neighborhood in downtown Kabul that used to be derelict, but was converted into an affluential area after its takeover by the Afghan Ministry of Defense.

Jonathan Finer, the deputy national advisor to Biden, and Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, the homeland security advisor, were the first briefed on al-Zawahiri's location in early April 2022. Later other officials were informed and national security advisor Jake Sullivan briefing Biden shortly afterwards. During May and June, American officials verified the information and prepared various options for Biden in order to carry out an assassination.

After learning that al-Zawahiri liked to sit on the balcony of his house, American officials constructed a scale model of the building in order to prepare for the strike and avoid harm to the other occupants. It was shown to Biden on 1 July. Officials including William J. Burns, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, Christine Abizaid, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, discussed the strike with Biden during the day. On 25 July, he received a final briefing and all of the officials involved in the decision to carry out the strike gave their unanimous approval.

Attack

President Biden delivers remarks confirming that US military executed a targeted killing of al-Zawahiri.

On 31 July 2022, at 6:18a.m. local time, while al-Zawahiri was standing outside on the balcony of his house, a U.S.-operated drone fired two AGM-114 Hellfire missiles at al-Zawahiri, killing him. The Hellfire variant used was speculated to have been armed with a kinetic warhead with pop-out blades instead of explosives, used against specific human targets to minimize collateral damage; it has been called the "Ninja bomb" and the "Flying Ginsu". The New York Times, citing an American analyst, reported that the house struck was owned by a top aide to Sirajuddin Haqqani, a senior official in the Taliban government. A senior American official told the Times that Zawahiri was struck by two missiles while standing on the balcony. A military analyst stated that images of the strike posted on social media that the missiles used were of the R9X variant, which is armed with blades to kill the target with kinetic impact and minimize collateral damage.

News of the event broke two days after the strike was conducted, after intelligence confirmed that al-Zawahiri was dead. A senior Biden administration official confirmed to reporters that a drone strike had taken place in Afghanistan and that it had eliminated an al-Qaeda target. Biden confirmed that he had authorized the strike a week prior and that the U.S. Intelligence Community had tracked al-Zawahiri in early 2022 as he moved into Kabul.

Reactions

Greg Barton, chair of Global Islamic Politics at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University, said on Sky News Australia that al-Zawahiri might be replaced by a "more effective and more able leader".

The strike was criticized by conservative columnist Marc Thiessen for being conducted remotely, in comparison to the action by US Navy SEALs that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Thiessen wrote that the drone strike left no opportunity to gain actionable information, as the earlier operation in Pakistan had, and compared Biden's justification of the action with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's comments in August 2021 about the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, in which Blinken called the remaining Al-Qaeda operatives "remnants".

Al-Qaeda has yet to name a successor to al-Zawahiri. The strike has put into question the safety of Mark Frerichs, a 60-year-old civil engineer believed to be held by Haqqani captors and the only known American hostage in Afghanistan.

Governments

A statement from the Taliban condemned the operation and said the strike was conducted on a residential house in the Sherpur area of Kabul. A spokesman for the Taliban said: "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". American President Joe Biden in a televised address however stated that "justice has been delivered" and American forces would find and eliminate anyone who was a threat to the U.S., while citing the involvement of al-Zawahiri in the September 11 attacks as a justification.

Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said he hoped terrorist attack victims find some "small solace" in the death of al-Zawahiri, while Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau tweeted "The death of Ayman al-Zawahiri is a step toward a safer world. Canada will keep working with our global partners to counter terrorist threats, promote peace and security and keep people here at home and around the world safe." China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted to al-Zawahiri's death that it is against all forms of terrorism but at the same time opposed to "double standards" on counter-terrorism operations and at the "expense of sovereignty" of other countries. Saudi Arabia's foreign ministry said "al-Zarahwi is considered one of the leaders of terrorism that led the planning and execution of heinous terrorist operations in the United States and Saudi Arabia."

See also

This page was last updated at 2022-08-02 19:46 UTC. Update now. View original page.

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