Ayman al-Azwahri killed on balcony of Kabul safe house by US drone strike
Edited by: TJVNews.com
The U.S. drone strike that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri on the balcony of a Kabul safe house intensified global scrutiny Tuesday of Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers and further undermined their efforts to secure international recognition and desperately needed aid, as was reported by the AP.
President Biden announced Monday that the operation that killed al-Zawahri delivered justice and hopefully “one more measure of closure” to families of the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
The president said in an evening address from the White House that U.S. intelligence officials tracked al-Zawahri to a home in downtown Kabul, Afghanistan where he was hiding out with his family. The president approved the operation last week and it was carried out Sunday, as was reported by the AP.
Al-Zawahri and the better-known Osama bin Laden plotted the 9/11 attacks that brought many ordinary Americans their first knowledge of al-Qaeda, as was reported by the AP. Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan on May 2, 2011, in a covert operation carried out by U.S. Navy SEALs after a nearly decade-long manhunt.
As for Al-Zawahri, Biden said, “He will never again, never again, allow Afghanistan to become a terrorist safe haven because he is gone and we’re going to make sure that nothing else happens.”
“This terrorist leader is no more,” he added, according to the AP report.
Born in June 1951, Al-Zawahri was an Egyptian-born physician, theologian and terrorist mastermind. He was put under worldwide sanctions in 1999 by the UN’s Al-Qaeda Sanctions Committee as a member of Al-Qaeda, according to a Wikipedia report.
After the September 11 attacks, the U.S. State Department offered a US$25 million reward for information or intelligence leading to Ayman al-Zawahri’s capture.
Al-Zawahri was previously a senior member of Islamist organizations which led attacks in Asia, Africa, North America and Europe. Wikipedia reported that in 2012, al-Zawahiri called on Muslims to kidnap Westerners in Muslim countries.
The operation is a significant counterterrorism win for the Biden administration just 11 months after American troops left the country after a two-decade war, as indicated in the report. Biden has taken a great deal of heat and public scrutiny over the manner in which America left Afghanistan; especially in the aftermath of 13 US military personnel being killed in a Taliban terror attack at the Kabul airport.
According to five people familiar with the matter who spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity the drone strike was conducted by the CIA. Neither Biden nor the White House detailed the CIA’s involvement in the strike.
Biden, however, paid tribute to the U.S. intelligence community in his remarks, noting that “thanks to their extraordinary persistence and skill” the operation was a success.
The AP reported that the Taliban had promised in the 2020 Doha Agreement on the terms of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan that they would not harbor al-Qaeda members or those seeking to attack the U.S. This strike is proof positive that the Taliban had broken their commitments to the US in terms of maintaining a terror free zone.
It was reported that for months, al-Zawahri lived in Kabul while being sheltered by senior figures in the Taliban.
The safe house where al-Zawahri was staying in Kabul’s upscale Shirpur neighborhood was the home of a top aide to senior Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, according to a senior U.S. intelligence official and reported by the AP. Haqqani is deputy head of the Taliban, serves as interior minister in its government and heads the Haqqani network, a powerful faction within the movement.
The AP reported that there have been persistent indications of unease among Taliban leadership, particularly tensions between the Haqqani network and rivals within the movement.
The Taliban initially sought to describe the strike as America violating the Doha deal, in which the U.S. committed not to attack the group. The Taliban have yet to say who was killed in the strike, as was indicated in the AP report.
“The killing of Ayman al-Zawahri has raised many questions,” said one Pakistani intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to The Associated Press as he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly to reporters. Al-Zawahri took over as al-Qaeda’s leader after Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan in 2011, in a covert operation conducted by U.S. Navy SEALs.
“The Taliban were aware of his presence in Kabul, and if they were not aware of it, they need to explain their position,” the official said.
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry issued a very carefully worded statement, which referred to a “counter-terrorism operation by the United States in Afghanistan” but did not mention al-Zawahri. “Pakistan condemns terrorism in all its forms and manifestations,” it said, according to the AP report. Pakistan has been lobbying for the world to grant increased recognition and support to the Taliban government.
The strike early Sunday shook awake Shirpur, once a district of historic buildings that were bulldozed in 2003 to make way for luxury homes for officials in Afghanistan’s Western-backed government and international aid organizations. The AP reported that subsequent to the U.S. withdrawal in August 2021, senior Taliban moved into some of the abandoned homes there.
The targeted safe house is only a few blocks from the British Embassy, which has been closed since the Taliban takeover in August. Taliban officials blocked AP journalists in Kabul from reaching the damaged house on Tuesday.
The AP reported that the U.N. Security Council was informed by monitors of militant groups in July that al-Qaida enjoys greater freedom in Afghanistan under the Taliban but confines itself to advising and supporting the country’s new rulers.
A report by the monitors said the two groups remain close and that al-Qaeda fighters, estimated to number between 180 to 400, are represented “at the individual level” among Taliban combat units.
The monitors said it’s unlikely al-Qaeda will seek to mount direct attacks outside Afghanistan, “owing to a lack of capability and restraint on the part of the Taliban, as well as an unwillingness to jeopardize their recent gains” such as having a safe haven and improved resources, as was reported by the AP.
During the first half of 2022, al-Zawahri increasingly reached out to supporters with video and audio messages, including assurances that al-Qaeda can compete with the Islamic State group for leadership of a global movement, the report by the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team said.
Islamic State terrorists have emerged as a major threat to the Taliban over the past year, carrying out a series of deadly attacks against Taliban targets and civilians.
The Haqqani network is an Afghan Islamic insurgent group, built around the family of the same name. In the 1980s, it fought Soviet forces and over the past 20 years, it battled U.S.-led NATO troops and the former Afghanistan government, as was reported by the AP. The U.S. government maintains a $10 million bounty on Serajjudin Haqqani for attacks on American troops and Afghan civilians.
But the Haqqanis, from Afghanistan’s eastern Khost province, have rivals within the Taliban leadership, mostly from the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. The AP reported that some believe Sirajuddin Haqqani wants more power. Other Taliban figures have opposed the Haqqanis’ attacks against civilians in Kabul and elsewhere during the insurgency.
Jerome Drevon, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst studying Islamist militant groups, told the AP that tensions are focused on how to direct the new regime — “how to share power … who gets what position, who gets to control what ministries, to decide the general policies and so on.”
The timing of the strike also couldn’t come at a worse time politically for the Taliban. The AP reported that the militants face international condemnation for refusing to reopen schools for girls above the sixth grade, despite earlier promises. The United Nations mission to Afghanistan also criticized the Taliban for human rights abuses under their rule, the report indicated.
The U.S. and its allies have stopped billions from flowing into development funds that kept the government afloat in part over the abuses, as well as froze billions in Afghan national assets, according to the AP report.
This sent the already shattered economy into free fall, increasing poverty dramatically and creating one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, according to the AP report. Millions struggling to feed their families, are kept alive by a massive U.N.-led relief effort.
The Taliban have been trying to reopen the taps to that aid and their reserves, as was reported by the AP. However, al-Zawahri’s killing already has been seized upon by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken as a sign that the Taliban “grossly violated the Doha Agreement and repeated assurances … that they would not allow Afghan territory to be used by terrorists to threaten the security of other countries.”
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid alleged the U.S. violated the Doha Agreement by launching the strike, as was reported by the AP. Afghanistan’s state-run television channel — now under the Taliban — reported that President Joe Biden said al-Zawahri had been killed.
Imtiaz Gul, the executive director of the Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security Studies told the AP that, “The killing of Ayman al-Zawahri closes a chapter of al-Qaeda.
Al-Zawahri’s death coincided with the 32nd anniversary of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait — creating a sort of a bookend to an era marked by Taliban terrorism. Saddam’s invasion prompted the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, which in turn was one factor that drove bin Laden to turn his guns on America, culminating in the 9/11 attacks, as was reported by the AP.
The AP also reported that on Tuesday morning, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that “there was nobody on the ground in uniform when this strike occurred.” Sullivan added that the U.S. government is “in direct communication with the Taliban on this, and I’m not going to telegraph our next moves, but the Taliban well understand the United States is going to defend its interests.”
Nathan Sales, ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism during the Trump administration who is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council told the AP that “Zawahri’s presence in post-withdrawal Afghanistan suggests that, as feared, the Taliban is once more granting safe haven to the leaders of al-Qaida – a group with which it has never broken. Zawahiri was living in a safehouse in the heart of Kabul, which only happens with the Taliban’s approval.”
Colin Clarke, director of research at The Soufan Group, a global intelligence and security firm told the AP that as al-Zawahri was living in a Kabul neighborhood and not in rural Afghanistan as previously believed, “tells you that he got really comfortable” under the protection of the Taliban.
“These entities work hand in glove,” Clarke said of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. “There’s not the separation that others would have you believe.”
Over the 20-year war in Afghanistan, the U.S. targeted and splintered al-Qaeda, sending leaders into hiding, according to the AP report. But America’s exit from Afghanistan last September gave the terror group the opportunity to rebuild.
U.S. military officials, including Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have said al-Qaeda was trying to reconstitute in Afghanistan, where it faced limited threats from the now-ruling Taliban, as was reported by the AP. Military leaders have warned that the group still aspired to attack the U.S.
After his killing, the White House underscored that al-Zawahri had continued to be a dangerous figure. The senior administration official said al-Zawahri had continued to “provide strategic direction,” including urging attacks on the U.S., while in hiding. The AP reported that he had also prioritized to members of the terror network that the United States remained al-Qaida’s “primary enemy,” the official said.
The 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon made bin Laden America’s Enemy No. 1. But he likely could never have carried it out without his deputy. The AP reported that Bin Laden provided al-Qaeda with charisma and money, but al-Zawahri brought tactics and organizational skills needed to forge militants into a network of cells in countries around the world.
U.S. intelligence officials have been aware for years of a network helping al-Zawahri dodge U.S. intelligence officials hunting for him but didn’t have a lead on his possible location until recent months, the AP reported.
Earlier this year, U.S. officials learned that the terror leader’s wife, daughter and her children had relocated to a safe house in Kabul, according to the senior administration official who briefed reporters.
Officials eventually learned al-Zawahri was also at the Kabul safe house, the AP reported.
In early April, White House deputy national security adviser Jon Finer and Biden’s homeland security adviser Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall were briefed on this developing intelligence, according to the AP report. Soon the intelligence was conveyed to national security adviser Jake Sullivan.
Sullivan brought the information to Biden as U.S. intelligence officials built “a pattern of life through multiple independent sources of information to inform the operation,” the official said, according to the AP report.
Senior Taliban figures were aware of al-Zawahri’s presence in Kabul, according to the official, who added the Taliban government was given no forewarning of the operation.
Inside the Biden administration, only a small group of officials at key agencies, as well as Vice President Kamala Harris, were brought into the process, according to the AP report. Through May and June, Biden was updated several times on the growing mound of intelligence that confirmed al-Zawahri was hiding out in the home. Over the last few weeks, Biden brought together several Cabinet officials and key national security officials to scrutinize the intelligence findings.
The AP reported that on July 1, Biden was briefed in the Situation Room about the planned operation, a briefing in which the president closely examined a scale model of the home al-Zawahri was hiding out in. The report indicated that he gave his final approval for the operation on Thursday. Al-Zawahri was on the balcony of his hideout on Sunday when two Hellfire missiles were launched from an unmanned drone, killing him.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell was quick to congratulate Biden on the operation, according to the AP report, but also made the case that it “further indicates that Afghanistan is again becoming a major thicket of terrorist activity following the president’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces.”
“Killing al-Zawahri is a success, but the underlying resurgence of al-Qaeda terrorists into Afghanistan is a growing threat that was foreseeable and avoidable,” McConnell said, as was reported by the AP. “The administration needs a comprehensive plan to rebuild our capacity to combat it.”