Killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri
|Part of the Global War on Terrorism|
|Date||31 July 2022|
|Time||c. 6:18 a.m. (UTC+04:30)|
|Location||Sherpur, Kabul, Afghanistan|
|Executed by||Central Intelligence Agency|
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 his death. 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 the country, 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. was able to confirm it. In response to the strike, Biden released a statement announcing al-Zawahiri's death, calling the strike a "deliverance of justice".
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 Abbottabad, 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 under which the Taliban agreed not to provide a safe haven for individuals involved with al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. 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 the U.S. initially denied the error, it was forced to acknowledge it after an exposé by The New York Times. Administration sources told the Times that since then they "have been taking more precautions to prevent civilian casualties in the strikes."
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 learned about it in 2022. They started tracking his family six to seven months before the assassination and eventually learned that al-Zawahiri himself had also moved there from Pakistan. 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 affluent and tightly controlled area after its takeover by the Afghan Ministry of Defense.
Jonathan Finer, the deputy national security advisor to Biden, and Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, the homeland security advisor, were the first to be briefed on al-Zawahiri's location in early April 2022. Later other officials were informed and national security advisor Jake Sullivan briefed Biden shortly afterwards. During May and June, American officials verified the information and prepared various options for Biden in order to carry out the 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, director of national intelligence, Christine Abizaid, 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.
On 31 July 2022, at 6:18 a.m. local time, a U.S.-operated drone fired two AGM-114 Hellfire missiles at al-Zawahiri while he was standing outside on the balcony of his house. Al-Zawahiri was killed, but the other occupants of the house were unharmed. The Hellfire variant was speculated to have been the R9X, armed with a kinetic warhead with pop-out blades instead of explosives, and 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. US officials did not say from which country or location the drone was launched, according to NPR however it was likely launched from a great distance away before reaching Kabul.
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.
U.S. President Joe Biden in a televised address 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.
The Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused the Taliban of "grossly violating" the withdrawal agreement by giving refuge to al-Zawahiri. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby warned the Taliban to abide by the agreement if it wanted international recognition and financing.
The State Department issued a "Worldwide Caution Alert" on 2 August, warning of a higher potential of al-Qaeda sympathizers attacking Americans after the strike and urging American citizens traveling to other countries to remain cautious.
Senators belonging to the Republican Party praised Biden's actions, including Marco Rubio and Joni Ernst. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell urged Biden's administration to adopt a comprehensive security plan in Afghanistan.
Former president Barack Obama applauded the killing on Twitter, proclaiming that "tonight’s news is also proof that it’s possible to root out terrorism without being at war in Afghanistan. And I hope it provides a small measure of peace to the 9/11 families and everyone else who has suffered at the hands of al-Qaeda."
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".
According to a senior American official, members of the Haqqani network, which is a part of the Taliban government, had tried to hide that al-Zawahiri had been at the house and restricted access to it, however the U.S. was able to confirm his death from multiple intelligence sources. He also stated that the group moved al-Zawahiri's family to another location following the strike.
The Taliban did not confirm al-Zawahiri's death following the strike. While Taliban officials initially confirmed the attack, they claimed the house was empty. The organization was reported to be in a political dilemma following the strike due to its desire to be recognized by the international community, which could be put at risk if it undertook any aggressive actions, and it facing pressure from within its ranks to respond to the U.S.
Suhail Shaheen, the head of the Taliban's political office in Doha, said that they were not aware of the presence of al-Zawahiri in Kabul and an investigation was underway to verify the allegations. Zabiullah Mujahid, the chief spokesperson of the Taliban, assured that Afghanistan would not become a refuge for terrorism against any country and insisted that the organization would honor the withdrawal agreement, while warning the U.S. to stop violating it. He later claimed that they did not find a body at the site.
Allies of the United States inside and outside of NATO praised the death of al-Zawahiri. 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."
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."
China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted to al-Zawahiri's death, stating 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.
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 Blinken's comments in August 2021 about the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, in which he called the remaining Al-Qaeda operatives "remnants".
German professor for International Law Christoph Safferling on Tagesschau considered the killing to be in violation of international law, because he does not consider Al Qaeda to be an "armed organization". Legal expert Robert Chesney has argued that the strike was legal under domestic U.S. and international law, as the law of armed conflict would apply to Zawahiri due to Al Qaeda's continued involvement in planning violent attacks against the United States.
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. Anti-American protests broke out in Afghanistan on 5 August, with hundreds of Afghans condemning the U.S. for the strike.