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Biden declares ‘justice delivered’ after drone strike kills Al Qaeda leader

President Biden announced Monday that Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri, a key plotter of the Sept. 11 attacks, was killed in a CIA drone strike he ordered targeting the terrorist leader in Afghanistan.

One of the world’s most wanted terrorists, Zawahiri helped oversee the 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, working closely with former Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, and had led the group over the last decade since Bin Laden’s death.

The 71-year-old Egyptian was killed in a drone strike at 6:48 p.m. local time Saturday at a residential location in Kabul, which fell to the Taliban a year ago almost immediately after Biden ordered the last U.S. forces to withdraw — a development that many feared would lead to more terrorist activity in Afghanistan’s capital.

“Justice has been delivered, and this terrorist leader is no more,” Biden said from the Blue Room balcony, as he remained in seclusion inside the White House residence after testing positive for the coronavirus in a rebound case. “No matter how long it takes, no matter how long you hide, if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out.”

Afghanistan, Biden continued, “can’t be a launching pad against the United States. We’re going to see to it that won’t happen.”

A decade after Navy SEALs killed Bin Laden during a daring raid on his heavily fortified compound on the outskirts of Abbottabad, Pakistan, Zawahiri’s whereabouts had remained a mystery.

But U.S. intelligence officials, a senior administration official said, tracked Zawahiri and his family to a safe house in downtown Kabul where they moved earlier this year. Over the next several months, officials observed Zawahiri on the balcony, where he was eventually struck and killed in a plan devised to minimize the risk to his family and civilians in the heavily populated area.

Biden, the official said, was first briefed in April, received updates on the intelligence throughout May and June, and gave the final go-ahead for the attack after a meeting with top Cabinet and national security advisors on July 25, where all the participants expressed support for the mission.

Five days later, a drone carried out the attack, firing two Hellfire missiles at Zawahiri on the balcony, killing him and him alone. Unlike the operation targeting Bin Laden, which lasted 40 minutes and ended with five people killed, including one of Bin Laden’s sons, the drone strike was carried out without any U.S. military presence on the ground in Afghanistan — “carefully planned,” Biden said, to minimize collateral damage. “There were no civilian casualties,” he said.

Taliban officials, who the White House said were long aware of Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul, whisked away the terrorist’s relatives shortly after the strike in an effort, the senior administration official said, to hide their presence in the city.

The group’s harboring of Zawahiri, the administration official added, amounted to a violation of the Doha agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban, under which the group agreed not to cooperate with terrorist groups.

Biden, long skeptical about the military’s commitment to the war in Afghanistan, famously cautioned President Obama about the risks of the 2011 Bin Laden raid when serving as vice president.

Ending the war there after 20 years of conflict was among Biden’s top first-year priorities, and he pushed ahead with the drawdown in the face of warnings from the Pentagon, scoffing at the potential for the country’s former government to fall to the Taliban just weeks before it did — a foreign policy debacle that forced the White House to scramble to airlift thousands of vulnerable Afghans to safety and one from which his own popularity has yet to recover.

The successful strike on Zawahiri, Biden said, validated his own rationale for ending the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, which was predicated in part on a belief that counterterrorism operations could still be carried out without a permanent presence on the ground.

“As President Biden has consistently said, we will not allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven for terrorists to my bring harm to Americans,” a senior administration official told reporters prior to Biden’s remarks. “We met that commitment on Saturday night. And in doing so, we showed that without American forces on the ground in Afghanistan and in harm’s way, we remain able to identify and locate even the world’s most wanted terrorists, and then take action to remove him from the battlefield.”

Daniel R. DePetris, a fellow at Defense Priorities, a veterans group that is highly skeptical about deploying military force, drew the same conclusion. “The targeted killing of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri in a CIA drone strike in Afghanistan underscores a critical fact: The U.S. need not permanently deploy military forces to defend against terrorist threats,” DePetris said.

“Targeted airstrikes or raids have proven to be a more efficient, less costly way to neutralize anti-U.S. terrorist groups. Zawahiri is the latest in a long list of senior terrorist leaders, operatives and facilitators to be taken off the battlefield, including Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” he continued, referring to the former leader of Islamic State who was killed in a 2019 strike authorized by President Trump.

Biden, in his brief prime-time address to the country, reminded the nation of Zawahiri’s central role in numerous Al Qaeda attacks, including the 2000 bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole in Yemen and of course Sept. 11.

Speaking to relatives of those killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and aboard United Flight 93 that crashed in Shanksville, Pa., Biden expressed hope that Zawahiri’s death “will be one more measure of closure.”

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