US drone strike kills Al-Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri in Kabul

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor and surgeon, helped coordinate the Sept 11, 2001, attacks. PHOTO: AFP
Smoke rising from a house following a US drone strike in the affluent Sherpur area of Kabul, on July 31, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has been killed in an American drone strike in Kabul, US officials said on Monday (Aug 1). 

The drone struck Zawahiri with two Hellfire missiles while he was on the balcony of the house he was living in, just after 6am (Kabul time) on July 31, a senior administration official told reporters, saying nobody else was harmed.

The official said “multiple streams of intelligence” led to identifying Zawahiri.

The strike is significant in terms of eliminating the organisation’s leader and key ideologue, and demonstrating US intelligence and over-the-horizon capability in Afghanistan. 

It was the biggest blow to the militant group since its founder Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011. Zawahiri was his deputy. 

It also may temper the negative effect of the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan almost exactly a year ago in August 2021.

And it gave President Joe Biden an opportunity to show resolve.

He now has under his belt the elimination of two most wanted militant leaders in under six months - an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi was killed in a US Special Forces raid in north-west Syria in February.

“Justice has been delivered,” Mr Biden said in brief televised remarks to the nation.

“My hope is that this decisive action will bring one more measure of closure,” he added. Reciting a quote from the ancient Roman poet Virgil that marks the memorial in New York City of the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attack that killed 2,977 people, he said: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”

But the incident shows that the Taliban still has ties with Al-Qaeda, despite its assurance under the February 2020 Doha Agreement the US inked with the Taliban, paving the way for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.

Under that agreement, the Taliban, which was poised to take over Afghanistan, agreed it would not harbour terrorists – a promise few analysts believed it would keep.

The Taliban on Monday lobbed its own counter-accusation at the US over a “clear violation” of international principles and of the Doha Agreement.

Osama bin Laden (left) with his adviser Ayman al-Zawahiri during an interview on Nov 10, 2001. PHOTO: REUTERS

Questions have inevitably arisen – not least among supporters of the rival ISIS – as to whether the Taliban was betrayed, or colluded with the US. 

“This is psychologically damaging and will create concerns as to who may have betrayed Zawahiri,” an intelligence analyst told The Straits Times on condition of anonymity.

Zawahiri had a US$25 million (S$34.5 million) bounty on his head for the Sept 11 attacks on the US, and was living in what the senior administration official described as a “safe house” in VIP-dotted, affluent Sherpur in the middle of Kabul.

Security sources said there is little chance the Taliban did not know he was there.

“Al-Zawahiri’s presence in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area confirms that the region is still home to international terrorist groups,” said Mr Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistan ambassador to the US and now a senior fellow and director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute, a think-tank in Washington.

“The operation shows that the US can still find identified terrorist leaders in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The question now would be whether the Taliban enabled Zawahiri’s elimination or the US did it without assistance,” he told ST.

Zawahiri’s death “marks the end of the Al-Qaeda old guard”, Mr Haqqani added. “It will be a new Al-Qaeda generation that will lead the group from here on.”

US President Joe Biden during a briefing about a 'successful' counterterrorism operation that killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, on Aug 1, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

The New York-based Soufan Centre, a research group focusing on violent extremism, conflict and counter-terrorism, said that Al-Qaeda was able to remain a coherent organisation under Zawahiri’s leadership, but that the killing and capture of myriad old-guard lieutenants in recent years leave it with a dwindling bench of potential successors. 

Analysts say the likely successor will be Saif al-Adel, who is said to be in Iran.

But he could have difficulties connecting with the group’s younger cadres who have emerged while he has been in Iran, the Soufan Centre said.

Adel may also be tainted in certain circles by his long presence in Iran, given Al-Qaeda’s hostility to Iran and Shi'ites, the think-tank added.

These factions may advocate for another extremist like Abu Abd al-Karim al-Masri to take the helm, given the latter’s crucial involvement with Al-Qaeda in Syria, it added.

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