WASHINGTON - A United States drone strike in Afghanistan this weekend killed Ayman al-Zawahri, who took over as al-Qaida’s leader after Osama bin Laden’s death in a U.S. raid in 2011.
President Joe Biden is set to announce the killing Monday, delivering a significant counterterrorism win just 11 months after American troops left the country after a two-decade war.
Al-Zawahri, 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.
Who is Ayman al-Zawahri?
According to the FBI wanted poster, al-Zawahri was born June 19, 1951, in Egypt.
Some of his physical characteristics are unknown but he was listed as having black/brown hair, dark eyes and an olive complexion.
He was also known to speak Arabic and French.
The FBI said al-Zawahri went by several aliases including Abu Muhammad, Abu Fatima, Muhammad Ibrahim, Abu Abdallah, Abu al-Mu'iz, The Doctor, The Teacher, Nur, Ustaz, Abu Mohammed, Abu Mohammed Nur al-Deen, Abdel Muaz, and Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri.
The FBI said al-Zawahri worked as a physician and was the founder of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ).
"This organization opposes the secular Egyptian Government and seeks its overthrow through violent means. In approximately 1998, the EIJ led by Al-Zawahiri merged with Al Qaeda," the FBI said.
Why did the FBI consider al-Zawahri armed and dangerous?
Al-Zawahiri was indicted for his alleged role on August 7, 1998, in the bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya.
Zawahri also appeared as Osama bin Laden’s deputy since 1998, then as his successor when bin Laden was killed in May 2011 during a U.S. commando operation.
Together, he and bin Laden turned the jihadi movement’s guns to target the U.S., carrying out the deadliest attack ever on American soil — the Sept. 11, 2001, suicide hijackings.
The attacks on the World Trade Center 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-Qaida with charisma and money, but al-Zawahri brought tactics and organizational skills needed to forge militants into a network of cells in countries around the world.
Why was Al-Zawahri Important?
After the years of quietly assembling the suicide attackers, funds and plans for the Sept. 11 attack, Zawahri and lieutenants ensured that al-Qaida survived the global manhunt that followed to attack again.
On the run after 9/11, al-Zawahri rebuilt al-Qaida leadership in the Afghan-Pakistan border region and was the supreme leader over branches in Iraq, Asia, Yemen and beyond. With a credo of targeting near and far enemies, al-Qaida after 9/11 carried out years of unrelenting attacks: in Bali, Mombasa, Riyadh, Jakarta, Istanbul, Madrid, London and beyond. Attacks that killed 52 people in London in 2005 were among al-Qaida's last devastating attacks in the West, as drone strikes, counterterror raids and missiles launched by the U.S. and others killed al-Qaida-affiliated fighters and shattered parts of the network.
How was he killed?
Around sunrise Sunday, Al-Zawahri walked out on the balcony of a house in Kabul, Afghanistan. He apparently lingered outside on the balcony, as U.S. intelligence had noted he often did. On this day, a U.S. drone fired two Hellfire missiles at the al-Qaida leader as he stood, according to U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the strike.
His presence in Afghanistan had been widely suspected for some time, analysts said. U.S. officials learned this year that Zawahri's wife and other family members had moved to a safe house in Kabul recently. Zawahri soon followed, the senior administration officials said.
U.S. officials, joined by top leaders all the way up to, eventually, Biden, spent careful months confirming his identity — and his fateful practice of standing alone on that same balcony — and planned the strike.
What does his killing mean for al-Qaida?
It depends on which al-Qaida lieutenant succeeds him. And after decades of U.S. and other strikes, that's a pretty thin group. Al-Qaida expert Ali Soufan points to an Egyptian, Saif al-Adl, as one of the candidates to be dreaded by the West, given al-Adl's revered status within al-Qaida, his experience, and the potential of his charisma to draw back al-Qaida defectors who've moved to other groups.
But al-Qaida overall now faces a succession crisis and a shaky future. That includes rivalries against aggressive upstart extremist groups that came into being after 9/11 and also have a presence in Afghanistan.
Charles Lister, another expert in violent extremist networks, wrote after the killing that the nature and spread of conflicts around the Middle East, Africa and South Asia today favor locally focused jihadist organizations rather than globally focused ones.
Al-Qaida's next leader will have to prove his relevance to "self-confident affiliates that have been more willing to push back against a central leadership perceived as detached from the realities of conflicts thousands of miles away," Lister wrote.
Did the Taliban know al-Zawahri was in Afghanistan?
Undoubtedly, U.S. officials said. It wasn't clear Monday how long al-Zawahri had been in Afghanistan, but his presence there had been widely rumored for some time, said Asfandyar Mir, a Central Asia expert with the U.S. Institute of Peace. Not only that: The house where Al-Zawahri was living with his family was owned by a top aide to senior Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, according to a senior U.S. intelligence official.
It could be that someone among the Taliban sold out al-Zawahri and his family to U.S. or other foreign interests. But it was a Taliban government that took in al-Qaida's leaders in the mid-1990s and allowed them to plot the 9/11 attacks there, sparking the 20-year U.S.-led war there. The worry after al-Zawahri's death in Afghanistan's capital was that the Taliban were allowing armed extremist organizations a home in Afghanistan again in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal, as the West had feared.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angles.