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The Assassination of Ayman al-Zawahiri: CIA Drone Kills al-Qaeda Leader at Safe House in Kabul

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Image Credit: Balkis Press/ABACA via Reuters Connect

President Biden claimed Monday a CIA drone strike killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul, Afghanistan. Trained as a surgeon in Egypt, where he was born into a prominent family, al-Zawahiri was a key figure in the jihadist movement since the 1980s. The U.S. has long accused al-Zawahiri of being a key 9/11 plotter along with Osama bin Laden, who was killed in a U.S. raid in Pakistan in 2011. The Taliban has since criticized the attack, saying the drone strike was a “violation of international principles.” For more, we’re joined by Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary and national security expert Karen Greenberg, who say the Taliban’s apparent sheltering of al-Zawahiri in a prominent Kabul neighborhood was shocking. “This is a strike inside the heart of Kabul in an area that is very, very well known to the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies,” says Sarwary, whose sources report at least 12 Arab nationals were killed in the strike despite Biden announcing there were no civilian casualties.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The United States has announced it’s killed the al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a drone strike in downtown Kabul in Afghanistan. A CIA drone reportedly fired two Hellfire missiles at Zawahiri as he was standing on a balcony in the safe house located in a wealthy neighborhood where many leaders of the Taliban live. The attack occurred on Sunday morning in Kabul. Al-Zawahiri’s assassination comes nearly 21 years after al-Qaeda attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, and just under a year after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan. The United States has long accused al-Zawahiri of being a key 9/11 plotter along with Osama bin Laden, who was killed in a U.S. raid in Pakistan in 2011. President Biden announced the assassination of al-Zawahiri on Monday night.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: My fellow Americans, on Saturday, at my direction, the United States successfully concluded an airstrike in Kabul, Afghanistan, that killed the emir of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri. You know, al-Zawahiri was bin Laden’s leader. He was with him all the — the whole time. He was his number two man, his deputy at the time of the terrorist attack of 9/11. He was deeply involved in the planning of 9/11, one of the most responsible for the attacks that murdered 2,977 people on American soil.

AMY GOODMAN: The Taliban criticized the U.S. attack, saying the drone strike was a “violation of international principles.” Secretary of State Tony Blinken criticized the Taliban for allowing al-Zawahiri to live in Kabul. In a statement, Blinken said, quote, “By hosting and sheltering the leader of al Qa’ida in Kabul, the Taliban grossly violated the Doha Agreement and repeated assurances to the world that they would not allow Afghan territory to be used by terrorists to threaten the security of other countries.”

Al-Zawahiri was a key figure in the international jihadist movement since the '80s. He was trained as a surgeon in Egypt, where he was born to a prominent family. In 1981, he was arrested as part of a broad plot to assassinate Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Egyptian authorities tortured al-Zawahiri and others involved in the plot. The author Lawrence Wright said al-Zawahiri's time in prison and torture led to his further radicalization.

After his release from prison after three years, al-Zawahiri traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he met Osama bin Laden. The United States has accused al-Zawahiri of being involved in numerous attacks, including the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and the bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. After 9/11, the United States put a $25 million bounty on his head.

We begin today’s show with Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary, who reported from Afghanistan for 20 years, fled the country after the Taliban takeover and is now in Toronto. On Sunday, he published photos on Twitter of the house where the drone strike occurred, but at the time the target of the attack was not known.

Bilal Sarwary, your response to now the news that al-Zawahiri has been assassinated by the United States?

BILAL SARWARY: Well, I think it’s shocking that the Taliban would have kept him in Sherpur, which is the upscale neighborhood not very far from Western embassies but also the presidential palace. What has come into light, that the house that was targeted has 17 rooms, it has four stories, it has basement, as well as a balcony. It’s sort of a Pakistani-inspired villa that was previously rented by an organization with whom I’ve spoken. And we are being told, actually, now by multiple sources that the house belonged to the chief of staff for Sirajuddin Haqqani, who’s the interior minister of the Taliban. And the police chief of Kabul, someone called Mawli Hamza, also resided in the same street, and the Haqqanis frequently visited this area. Now, the Haqqani Network has had a generational, historical and ideological relationship with al-Qaeda, starting from the 1980s. There has been many intermarriages.

But again, you know, this is a strike inside the heart of Kabul in an area that is very, very well known to the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies, because over the last 20 years they had a presence specifically in this area. They had safe houses. Their partner agency, the NDS, had similar safe houses. And the irony is that these houses did come under suicide and complex attacks by the Haqqani Network before the fall of Kabul on August the 15th in 2021. I remember shortly before the fall of Kabul, the house of former Defense Minister Bismillah Khan was targeted, first by powerful car bombs; afterwards, attackers got inside, and, you know, that led to gun battle for hours.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Bilal, the U.S. has said that there were no other — there were no civilian casualties from this strike. From what you’ve been able to tell and report, is that accurate? And you also mentioned the Haqqani Network. Could you talk about the relationship between the Haqqanis and the — both the Taliban and al-Qaeda?

BILAL SARWARY: According to sources in Kabul city that I have been able to speak to, at least 12 Arab nationals and foreign fighters are among those killed, including Egyptians. We are being told by several eyewitnesses that shortly after the strike hit, in the neighborhood of Shar-e-Naw, which is not very far, vehicles were seen transporting what appear to have been foreign fighters with their families, quite possibly heading to other locations, including to the presidential palace. So, this also sort of shows you that al-Qaeda was not only quite confident at the very highest echelons, you know, feeling very, very safe in an area like Wazir Akbar Khan, but they’ve had a presence, and now they feel that it’s basically their own sort of backyard.

As far as the relationship goes, as I said earlier on, it’s extremely close. It’s generational. It’s historical. It’s ideological. I would not be surprised if there would be intermarriages for second and third generation of Arab and Afghan fighters. Here I’m talking about the Taliban. And we have to really also remember that Ayman al-Zawahiri is someone who has been in the region for more than 20 years. He has known a lot of these players in the Afghan conflict. He’s traveled extensively from Kunar and Nuristan in the east, where he was being hunted down, to places like Waziristan.

And quite honestly, this is an embarrassment for the Taliban, as well, who continue to project themself as the victorious, powerful force that can really deal with any situation. We don’t know who might have given up al-Zawahiri, what sort of an operation this could have been, but, according to some sources, Ayman al-Zawahiri was transported from North Waziristan or via North Waziristan, possibly in the month of May, to Kabul, you know, where he lived with his family. And I’ve been also looking at some pictures that have been shared with me which shows that in this very same house, certain Taliban officials, including members of the Haqqani family, did take pictures. It would appear from the snow that it would be around, you know, winter, year 2021. So it will be interesting to know if this was the Abbottabad sort of moment for the Taliban, where certain Taliban officials and leaders may have known about the presence, but others may have not. But, you know, yesterday there was a big issue between various Taliban officials and ministers whether there should be a state-level funeral held for al-Zawahiri or whether it should not be. But it is, you know, a conundrum for the Taliban, because they cannot deny this anymore.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to bring in Karen Greenberg of the Center on National Security at Fordham University School of Law. Professor Greenberg, your response to this announcement of the assassination of al-Zawahiri? And were you surprised that he was in the midst of Kabul?

KAREN GREENBERG: Yes, I think it was very surprising to many that he was found in Afghanistan. I think it sort of underscored, as Bilal was saying, this resurgent ties between Taliban and al-Qaeda, something that the war on terror sought to and succeeded, to the most part, we thought, in separating.

And I was also surprised a little bit at President Biden’s speech and the way he described this as part of us having to be ever vigilant about the war on terror, because in many ways this was the final blow of the sites that the United States had in mind in countering the 9/11 threat and in the post-9/11 era, meaning that this was, you know, after bin Laden, who was the most important leader of al-Qaeda since 9/11, and that is al-Zawahiri. And so, I think that his death is actually a very important moment in understanding the — addressing 9/11, addressing the war on terror. And in many ways, although terrorism may continue to proliferate around the world, and, as we know, there’s much terrorism in a number of splinter groups, the question is: Is this really the final part of the post-9/11 war on terror, no matter what the future may bring? So, those are my initial thoughts on it.

AMY GOODMAN: The author Lawrence Wright wrote extensively about al-Zawahiri in his book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. In 2010, Wright appeared on Fresh Air and talked about how al-Zawahiri was further radicalized after being tortured while imprisoned in Egypt.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: And so, many of the ideas that were percolating there boiled into al-Qaeda. And there’s one thing that wasn’t really, I think, voiced as an idea, but the torture that they endured, in my opinion, is what really gave them an appetite for revenge. And the bloodletting that is so characteristic of al-Qaeda, and really is very unusual for terror groups, which are mainly interested in theater, I think it was born in the humiliation that those men felt in those Egyptian prisons.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is Lawrence Wright talking about al-Zawahiri. Karen Greenberg, you wrote the book Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of American Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump. Can you talk about the significance of him being tortured? And just give us a thumbnail history of who al-Zawahiri was. What is his history?

KAREN GREENBERG: Yeah, and this is something you did well in the introduction to your show, so I’ll try not to be too repetitive. But, you know, Ayman al-Zawahiri was born to a well-to-do family, educated, a family that consisted of doctors, sort of famously, numerous doctors within the family. He, too, studied at the University of Cairo, became a doctor, was often referred to as “The Doctor.”

And the reason that he was in prison was that he was convicted not of the actual assassination in and of itself, but, I think, of having arms in his possession as part of the plot that assassinated Anwar el-Sadat. And so, that is why he went to prison. He went to prison for three years.

And yes, the stories of how torture affected him were — you know, I don’t think it’s just Lawrence Wright. I think he does a fantastic job — he’s a fellow at my center, by the way — a fantastic job sort of telling how torture breaks down the human being, breaks down the personality and really is transformative in terms of how it can lead to violence in the future. And Ayman al-Zawahiri is an example of this.

After he was released from prison, he was expelled from Egypt, and he went to Afghanistan, where he met Osama bin Laden and began to — began what became this relationship that eventually led to Zawahiri uniting the Egyptian jihadist Islamist forces with bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, and was a person who was known for strategy, for masterminding a number of attacks, not particularly charismatic, not particularly liked, but, no matter, a very effective strategist in terms of fighting. He was identified not just with the plans for 9/11, but, prior to that, for the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 in the Gulf of Aden off of Yemen, which led to the deaths of 17 servicemen, U.S. servicemen. And also, he was indicted along with bin Laden in the indictment against those who conducted the bombings, as you mentioned, in East Africa in 1998. And so he has a long history, after that imprisonment, of violence in the name of jihad.

And the other thing about al-Zawahiri that’s interesting is that it was bin Laden that basically said, “We are going to be an internationalist organization, and we are going to attack the West, and we are going to attack the United States.” Prior to that, much of the Islamic jihad had been focused on local issues, local insurgencies. Under Zawahiri’s command after the death of bin Laden, there was a return — not a separation entirely from anti-Western, anti-American, but a return to a focus on local issues, local insurgencies. And much of what Zawahiri did was to try to have a hand, if not a formal affiliation, with many of these terrorist groups that were proliferating in the Middle East, in Africa and elsewhere.

And so, he has had an important imprint on al-Qaeda for many, many decades now. And so, you know, we’ll see what his death actually means going forward in terms of the organization of al-Qaeda, because we don’t really know, although many think it will be the third in command, Saif al-Adel, who will be in charge of al-Qaeda going forward. But my guess is that al-Qaeda — that this is really a identifying moment for al-Qaeda. And whether or not it will have a future and what that future will look like is very much in question after his death.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I’d like to ask, follow up on that very issue with Bilal, in terms of this — historically, an American approach to dealing with its enemies is that you assassinate the head, and therefore you stop the movement. It’s not just in terms of bin Laden, now Zawahiri, but the leaders of ISIS. You could go back to the days when the United States was hunting Che Guevara in Latin America, all the assassination attempts against Fidel Castro, the killing of Saddam Hussein, and even going back to the 1930s, the hunt for Sandino in Nicaragua. Is it your sense that this attempt to cut off the head really deals with the fundamental issues that are raised by these insurgencies?

BILAL SARWARY: Well, I think al-Qaeda did transform the Taliban as an insurgency over the last 20 years. Let’s go back and see how the Taliban learned to use roadside bombs, for example, how they learned to have an army of suicide attackers. How did they learn to have powerful truck bombs? You know, so, in my view, al-Qaeda has done their job, as far as they’re concerned.

And the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda is extremely close, you know, on the battlefield, as well, over the last 20 years. And today, if you look at Afghanistan, I would say there is a good several thousand foreign fighters, including Arab fighters, those from Central Asia, operating in Afghanistan side by side alongside the Taliban. And there are those like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan that are inspired by al-Qaeda. You know, these are militant groups that have lived and fought together in Afghanistan, but also before Afghanistan in places like Waziristan. So, it would be interesting how the Taliban would try to deal with that internally. First, you know, how do their fighters and mid-level commanders react to this, you know, but then also the issue of foreign fighters? In my view, if tomorrow the Taliban wanted to get rid of the foreign fighters, they couldn’t, because the number is big, and that would become a headache.

But we would have to also see what would be the future of al-Qaeda from here on, because the Islamic State has a presence. It is an emerging threat, we know that. And it would be, again, you know, the question of how the Taliban could continue to convince the international community in the West that they are not only harboring such figures at the very, very highest echelons, but that they could be trusted. We have to remember this news only comes weeks before August the 15th, when the Taliban took power militarily. And in my view, also, you know, over the last one year or so, we have continuously reported the presence of drones over Kabul, over northern and eastern parts of Afghanistan, so that also means that the Americans, in particular, you know, did not trust the Taliban as partners, because there was this sort of joke going around Kabul, before Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, that there was this counterterrorism cooperation going on between the Americans and the Taliban. And I could tell you that in the eastern province of Kunar, where I come from, there was a time when there was ample amount of evidence that the Americans were carrying out airstrikes against the Islamic State. Quite possibly, the coordinates were given by the Taliban on the ground through mobile phones. And that did not send a very powerful message at that time to the Afghan government, and specifically to its special forces, who had a very close relationship with the American Army.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to end by going back to President Biden’s speech last night and getting Professor Greenberg’s comment on the war on terror.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: As commander-in-chief, it is my solemn responsibility to make America safe in a dangerous world. The United States did not seek this war against terror; it came to us. And we answered with the same principles and resolve that have shaped us for generation upon generation — to protect the innocent, defend liberty, and we keep the light of freedom burning, a beacon for the rest of the entire world, because this is the great and defining truth about our nation and our people: We do not break. We never give in. We never back down.

AMY GOODMAN: Karen Greenberg, your response to Biden and the so-called war on terror?

KAREN GREENBERG: You know, my response is that the speech could have been much more about how this is a final moment in the war on terror as we defined it after 9/11. I do think that Biden is seeking vindication for pulling out of Afghanistan and being able to say, “Look, we can still protect ourselves even in Afghan space, if we need to, by these over-the-horizon strikes.” I did think it was a little more bellicose in terms of what the future may bring than I think many of us who have studied the pitfalls of the war on terror may have hoped for. On the other hand, this was an important moment in saying that those who brought about 9/11 and many of the attacks prior to 9/11 and who threatened the United States after 9/11 have been dealt with.

The real question is: How does the United States move on now that we’re really in a different era of great power rivalries, of — our attention has turned to elsewhere in the world? And as terrorism experts have said from the very beginning, managing terrorism, as opposed to making it a war, may very much be the future of counterterrorism, although I’m not sure we would know that from Biden’s speech last night.

AMY GOODMAN: Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University School of Law, and Bilal Sarwary, Afghan journalist, we thank you both for being with us.

Next up, voters are going to the polls today, among other places, in Kansas, there to decide whether to repeal the state’s constitutional protection for abortion and pave the way for conservative lawmakers to enact a near-total ban on abortion. We’ll go to the latest in Wichita. Stay with us.

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