‘Justice has been delivered’: Biden announces death of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri

President Joe Biden announced on Monday evening that the United States conducted a mission that killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda.

Mr Biden, who is currently in isolation after having a rebound case of Covid-19, made the announcement from the White House balcony that on Saturday, he gave the direction for the mission in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.

“Now, Justice has been delivered,” Mr Biden said. “And this terrorist leader is no more. People around the world no longer need to fear the vicious and determined killer.”

Mr Biden outlined in his address how the al-Qaeda leader had been responsible not just for the deaths on 9/11 but also the USS Cole bombing, which killed 17 US sailors and the bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

“It carved a trail of murder and violence against American citizens, American servicemembers, American diplomats and American interest”, he said.

“We we make it clear again tonight. That 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,“ he said.

A senior Biden administration official who briefed reporters on the details of the successful operation said the strike against al-Zawahiri was “several years” in the making, and was the result of surveillance of an al-Qaeda support network which US officials said was operated for al-Zawahiri’s benefit.

The official said the US intelligence community had identified members of the al-Qaeda leader’s family, including his wife, daughter, and children, at a safe house in Kabul this year, and said intelligence officials were able to “increase [their] confidence” that al-Zawahiri was “present” at the Kabul safe house despite family members exercising “long-standing terrorist tradecraft”.

“We identified al-Zawahiri on multiple occasions, for sustained periods of time, on the balcony where he was ultimately struck,” the official said. They added that Mr Biden was first briefed on the developing intelligence regarding al-Zawahiri’s location in early April, and stressed that intelligence officials took great pains to minimise risk of civilian casualties as well as consider the ramifications of conducting a drone strike against a building in downtown Kabul.

“This mission was carefully planned, rigorously minimize the risk of harm to other civilians,” Mr Biden said during his speech. “And one week ago, after being advised the conditions were optimal. I gave the final approval to go get him and the mission was a success.”

The official said Mr Biden continued to receive updates on the development of intelligence regarding al-Zawahiri through May and June of this year, and during that tie “convened … several meetings” with “key advisers and cabinet members” at which they “carefully scrutinize[d] the intelligence and evaluate[d] the best course of action”.

The president was then briefed on a “proposed operation” against the al-Qaeda leader on 1 July during a White House Situation Room meeting alongside Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, National Counterterrorism Centre Director Christine Abizaid, and his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan.

“The President was as always deeply engaged in the briefing and immersed in the intelligence — he asked detailed questions about what we knew and how we knew it,” the official said, adding that Mr Biden “sought explanations” about “factors that could influence the success of this operation and reduce the risk of civilian casualties,” including lighting, weather, and the material from which the al-Qaeda leader’s safe house was built.

Mr Biden gave the final order authorising the mission after a 25 July meeting with “key Cabinet members and advisors”.

“At the conclusion of the meeting, the President authorized a precise tailored airstrike on the condition that a strike minimize to the greatest extent possible the risk of civilian casualties. This authorization meant that the US government could conduct an airstrike once an opportunity was available,” the official said, adding that it was carried out at 9.48 pm ET using two AGM-114 “Hellfire” missiles fired from a US drone.

The official said al-Zawahiri’s death “deals a significant blow to al-Qaeda and will degrade the group’s ability to operate including against the US homeland”.

“This action keeps pace with the President’s solemn pledge to protect Americans from terrorist threats — including addressing such threats that might emerge from Afghanistan,” the official said.

“Even as the President ended two decades of war in Afghanistan by getting American servicemen out of harm’s way there, he promised that we would have that capacity from outside the country to identify and address terrorist threat to Americans. He made good on that with this action as US forces showed extraordinary capacity to build an intelligence picture on the world’s most wanted terrorists and then take precise action to remove him from the battlefield”.


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