A United States drone strike killed Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri at a hideout in Kabul, President Joe Biden said Monday, declaring that “justice had been delivered” to the families of the 9/11 attacks.
Zawahiri’s assassination is the biggest blow to Al-Qaeda since US special forces killed Osama bin Laden in 2011 and calls into question the Taliban’s promise not to harbour militant groups.
It was the first known over-the-horizon strike by the US on a target in Afghanistan since Washington withdrew its forces from the country on August 31 last year, days after the Taliban swept back to power.
“Justice has been delivered and this terrorist leader is no more,” Biden said in a sombre televised address, adding he hoped Zawahiri’s death would bring “closure” to families of the 3,000 people killed in the US on September 11, 2001.
Zawahiri was believed to be the mastermind who steered Al-Qaeda’s operations — including the 9/11 attacks — as well as bin Laden’s personal doctor.
A senior administration official said the 71-year-old Egyptian was on the balcony of a three-storey house in the Afghan capital when targeted with two Hellfire missiles after dawn Sunday.
“We identified Zawahiri on multiple occasions for sustained periods of time on the balcony where he was ultimately struck,” the official said.
The house is in Sherpur, one of Kabul’s most affluent neighbourhoods, with several villas occupied by high-ranking Taliban officials and commanders.
The interior ministry previously denied reports of a drone strike circulating on social media, telling AFP a rocket struck “an empty house” in Kabul, causing no casualties.
Early Tuesday, however, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted that an “aerial attack” was carried out.
“The nature of the incident was not revealed at first,” he said.
“The security and intelligence agencies of the Islamic Emirate investigated the incident and found in their preliminary investigations that the attack was carried out by American drones.”
Although Biden did not mention the Taliban in his televised address, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said “by hosting and sheltering” Zawahiri, the Islamist group had “grossly violated the Doha Agreement” which paved the way for America’s withdrawal.
Zabihullah, in turn, accused Washington of breaking the 2020 deal.
“Such actions are a repetition of the failed experiences of the past 20 years and are against the interests of the United States of America, Afghanistan, and the region,” he said.
Zawahiri, who grew up in a comfortable Cairo household before turning to violent radicalism, had been on the run since the 9/11 attacks.
He took over Al-Qaeda after bin Laden was killed, and had a $25 million US bounty on his head.
News of his death comes a month before the first anniversary of the final withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, leaving the country in the hands of the Taliban insurgency that fought Western forces for two decades.