US President Joe Biden confirmed that a drone strike in Afghanistan killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, who took over as al-Qaeda leader after Osama bin Laden's death in a US raid. Biden was set to announce the killing, delivering a significant counterterrorism win just 11 months after American troops left the country after a two-decade war.
Speaking on August 31, 2021, after the last US troops left Afghanistan, Biden had said the US would not let up on its fight against terrorism in that country or elsewhere. "We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries," he said. "We just don't need to fight a ground war to do it." Previewing the strike that would occur 11 months later, Biden said at the time, "We have what's called over-the-horizon capabilities, which means we can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground or very few, if needed."
There have been rumours of al-Zawahri's death on and off for several years. But a video surfaced in April of the al-Qaida leader praising a Muslim woman in Karnataka who had defied a ban on wearing a hijab, or headscarf. That footage was the first proof in months that he was still alive.
The house Al-Zawahiri was in when he was killed was owned by a top aide to senior Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani. A CIA ground team and aerial reconnaissance conducted after the drone strike confirmed al-Zawahiri's death.
Al-Zawahiri's loss eliminates the figure who more than anyone shaped al-Qaeda, first as Osama bin Laden's deputy since 1998, then as his successor. Together, he and bin Laden turned the jihadi movement's guns to target the United States, carrying out the deadliest attack ever on American soil the September 11, 2001, suicide hijackings.
The attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon made bin Laden America's Enemy No. 1. But he likely could never have carried it out without his deputy. Bin Laden provided al-Qaeda with charisma and money, but al-Zawahiri brought tactics and organisational skills needed to forge militants into a network of cells in countries around the world.
Their bond was forged in the late 1980s, when al-Zawahiri reportedly treated the Saudi millionaire bin Laden in the caves of Afghanistan as Soviet bombardment shook the mountains around them.
Zawahiri, 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 balcony off the White House Blue Room as he remains in isolation in the residence while he continues to test positive for COVID-19. Al-Zawhiri and bin Laden plotted the 9/11 attacks that brought many ordinary Americans their first knowledge of al-Qaeda.