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As seen on a computer screen from a DVD prepared by Al-Sahab production, al-Qaida's Ayman al-Zawahri speaks in Islamabad, Pakistan, on June 20, 2006.

As seen on a computer screen from a DVD prepared by Al-Sahab production, al-Qaida's Ayman al-Zawahri speaks in Islamabad, Pakistan, on June 20, 2006. (B.K. Bangash/AP)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. killed al-Qaida’s top leader Ayman al-Zawahri on Saturday with a drone strike in Kabul, nearly a year after U.S. troops ended 20 years of military involvement in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden announced Monday.

“[Al-Zawahri] made videos including the recent weeks calling for his followers to attack the United States and our allies. Now, justice has been delivered,” Biden said. “People around the world no longer need to fear the vicious and determined killer."

The Egyptian-born terrorist was killed with two precision-guided Hellfire missiles launched from outside Afghanistan, according to a senior Biden administration official, who noted there were “zero U.S. troops on the ground in Kabul” at the time.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not say what agencies conducted the strike, but said the operation was “a team effort.” Al-Zawahri’s killing is the first publicly known time that the U.S. has conducted a drone strike in Kabul since ceasing its war in Afghanistan on Aug. 31, 2021.

Al-Zawahri, known for his brutality and contempt for the United States, took over as al-Qaida’s top leader from Osama bin Laden after the Navy’s Seal Team Six killed bin Laden in his Pakistan compound on May 2, 2011, according to the official.

“[Al-Zawahri] continued to provide strategic direction to al-Qaida affiliates worldwide, calling for attacks on the United States,” the official said. “His death fields a significant blow to al-Qaida and will degrade the group's ability to operate including against the U.S. homeland.”

Al-Zawahri helped bin Laden plan the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States and served as his second in command, Biden said. Three years before, the two endorsed a manifesto that called for Muslims “to kill Americans and their allies — civilian and military.”

He also was the “mastermind” behind several other attacks against Americans, including the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen that killed 17 U.S. sailors and wounded dozens more, the president said.

"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,” Biden said.

The strike came after U.S. counterterrorism and intelligence communities spent the past year “watching for indications of [al-]Zawahri’s presence in Afghanistan,” the official said. Earlier this year, the U.S. learned the al-Qaida leader’s family had moved to a safehouse in Kabul.

“Our ability to locate [al-]Zawahri after years of hiding was the result of careful, patient and persistent work by our counterterrorism professionals,” the official said. “Our ability to act on it effectively was made possible by quick decisive action by the president once we knew with confidence where [al-]Zawahri was located and that we could conduct the operation in a manner that limited the risk of civilian casualties.”

The U.S. government has been carefully and secretly searching for al-Zawahri as he led the terrorist group for the past 11 years, the official said.

“We know of his support to [al-Qaida] affiliates and guidance to affiliates around the world to target us,” the official said. “He built an organizational model that allowed him to lead the global network even from relative isolation.”

The U.S. has “no indication that civilians were harmed” in the strike, the official said. An independent review team also found “with high confidence” that the al-Qaida leader was the only person to die in the strike.

The U.S. did not alert the Taliban, which controls Afghanistan, of the planned strike before it occurred, the official said.

“[Biden’s] decision has made the world a safer place and brought on an additional measure of closure for all of us to mourn the victims of 9/11 and other al-Qaida violence,” the official said.

Several lawmakers, including Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Mark Warner, D-Va., spoke in support of the strike after Biden’s address from the White House.

“I commend the efforts of our [intelligence] officers and service members for finally — 21 years after the horrific 9/11 attacks — bringing one of its last remaining leaders to justice,” Warner said.

Reed called the announcement “welcome news,” but said the U.S. “must continue our coordinated effort to defeat al-Qaida and deny them financing, recruiting tools, and safe haven” despite the Pentagon’s priority of threats emanating from Russia and China in its 2022 National Defense Strategy.

“Terrorist groups remain a deadly threat around the globe,” said Reed, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Even as we focus on strategic competition with near-peer rivals, we must continue to hone our counterterrorism approach with allies and partners.”

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Caitlin Doornbos covers the Pentagon for Stars and Stripes after covering the Navy’s 7th Fleet as Stripes’ Indo-Pacific correspondent at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. Previously, she worked as a crime reporter in Lawrence, Kan., and Orlando, Fla., where she was part of the Orlando Sentinel team that placed as finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news. Caitlin has a Bachelor of Science in journalism from the University of Kansas and master’s degree in defense and strategic studies from the University of Texas at El Paso.
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