Al-Qaeda Ayman al-Zawari killed in drone strike in Afghanistan

President Joe Biden is scheduled to address the nation at 7:30 p.m. EDT.

WASHINGTON — A US drone strike in Afghanistan this weekend killed Ayman al-Zawari, who had taken over as al-Qaeda leader after the death of Osama bin Laden in a US raid. President Joe Biden was scheduled to announce the assassination Monday, marking a significant victory in the fight against terrorism, just 11 months after American troops left the country after a two-decade war.

The strike, conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency, was confirmed by five people familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity before Biden was scheduled to update the American people on the details of the operation in a 7:30 p.m. EDT address to the nation.

Al-Zawari’s loss eliminates the figure who has shaped al-Qaeda more than any other, first as Osama bin Laden’s deputy since 1998, then as his successor. Together, he and bin Laden turned the guns of the jihadist movement on the United States and carried out the deadliest attack ever on American soil – the 9/11 suicide kidnappings.

Current and former officials began hearing Sunday afternoon that al-Zawari had been killed in a drone strike, but the government delayed releasing the information until his death could be confirmed, according to one person.

White House officials declined to confirm al-Zawari’s death, but did note in a statement that the United States had conducted a “successful” counterterrorism operation against a key al-Qaeda target, adding added that “there were no civilian casualties”.

The house where Al-Zawari was when he was killed belonged to a senior adviser to senior Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, according to a senior intelligence official. The official added that a CIA ground team and aerial reconnaissance conducted after the drone strike confirmed al-Zawari’s death. Planning for the operation began six months ago but has intensified over the past two months, the official said.

During the 20-year war in Afghanistan, the US targeted and fragmented al-Qaeda and leaders went into hiding. But America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan last September gave the extremist group an opportunity to rebuild. US military officials, including General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have said al-Qaeda was attempting to regroup in Afghanistan, where it faced limited threats from the now-ruling Taliban. Military leaders have warned that the group still wants to attack the US

The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001 made bin Laden America’s No. 1 Enemy. But without his second-in-command, he probably would never have been able to carry them out. Bin Laden provided al-Qaeda with charisma and money, but al-Zawari brought with him the tactics and organizational skills needed to forge militants in a network of cells in countries around the world.

Their bond was forged in the late 1980s when al-Zawari was reportedly treating Saudi millionaire bin Laden in the caves of Afghanistan while Soviet bombardments rattled the mountains around them.

Zawari, who is on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist List, had a $25 million bounty on his head for any information that could be used to kill or capture him.

Biden planned to speak from the White House Blue Room balcony as he remains isolated at the residence while he continues to test positive for COVID-19.

Al-Zawhiri and bin Laden planned the September 11 attacks, which was the first time many ordinary Americans learned about al-Qaeda.

Photos from this period often showed the bespectacled, mild-looking Egyptian doctor sitting at bin Laden’s side. Al-Zawahiri had merged his group of Egyptian militants with bin Laden’s al-Qaeda in the 1990s.

“The strong contingent of Egyptians applied organizational know-how, financial expertise, and military experience to wage violent jihad against leaders who viewed the fighters as un-Islamic and their patrons, particularly the United States,” wrote Steven A. Cook for the Foreign Relations Council last year.

When the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan destroyed al-Qaeda’s safe haven and dispersed, killed and captured its members, al-Zawari ensured al-Qaeda’s survival. He rebuilt their leadership in the Afghan-Pakistani border region and installed allies as lieutenants in key positions.

He also transformed the organization from a centralized planner of terrorist attacks to the head of a franchise chain. He led the establishment of a network of autonomous offices across the region, including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, North Africa, Somalia, Yemen and Asia. Over the next decade, al Qaeda inspired or was directly involved in attacks in all of these areas, as well as in Europe, Pakistan and Turkey, including the 2004 train bombings in Madrid and the 2005 transit bombings in London.

More recently, the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen proved its ability to plan attacks on US soil, with a bombing of a US airliner in 2009 and an attempted package bomb the following year.

But even before bin Laden’s death, al-Zawari was struggling to maintain al-Qaeda’s relevance in a changing Middle East.

He tried, with little success, to capture the wave of insurgency that swept across the Arab world from 2011, urging Islamic hardliners to seize power in countries where leaders had fallen. But while Islamists have risen to prominence in many places, they have strong ideological differences with al-Qaeda and oppose its agenda and leadership.

Despite this, al-Zawari attempted to pose as the leader of the Arab Spring. America “faces an Islamic nation in revolt that has emerged from its lethargy into a renaissance of jihad,” he said in a video eulogizing bin Laden, who wore a white robe and turban and carried an assault rifle behind him leaning against a wall.

Al-Zawari was also a more divisive figure than his predecessor. Many militants described the soft-spoken bin Laden in admiring and almost spiritual terms.

In contrast, al-Zawari was notoriously prickly and pedantic. He engaged in ideological disputes with critics from the jihad camp, and in his videos he raised his index finger in a scolding manner. Even some key figures in al Qaeda’s central leadership have been put off, calling it overly controlling, secretive and divisive.

Some militants, whose links with bin Laden predated al-Zawari’s, always saw him as an arrogant intruder.

“I have never taken orders from al-Zawari,” scoffed Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, one of the network’s leaders in East Africa until his death in 2011, in a 2009 paper posted online. “We don’t take orders from anyone except our historical leadership.”

On August 31, 2021, after the last US troops left Afghanistan, Biden said the US would not relax in its fight against terrorism in that country or anywhere else.

“We will continue the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries,” he said. “We just don’t have to fight a ground war for that.” Referring to the attack, which would take place 11 months later, Biden said at the time: “We have so-called over-the-horizon capabilities, which means we can target terrorists and targets without American boots.” can attack on the ground – or very few if necessary. ”

Rumors of al-Zawari’s death have been circulating for several years. But in April, a video surfaced of the al-Qaeda leader praising an Indian Muslim woman who flouted a ban on wearing a hijab, or headscarf. This footage was the first evidence in months that he was alive.

A statement from the Afghan Taliban government confirmed the airstrike but made no mention of al-Zawari or other casualties.

It said it “strongly condemns this attack, calling it a clear violation of international principles and the Doha Accords,” the US 2020 pact with the Taliban that led to the withdrawal of American forces.

“Such actions are a repetition of the failed experiences of the past 20 years and run counter to the interests of the United States, Afghanistan and the region,” the statement said.

Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor, Ellen Knickmeyer, Zeke Miller, Aamer Madhani, and Darlene Superville in Washington; Rahim Faiez in Islamabad; and Lee Keath in Cairo contributed reporting.

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Laura Coffey

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