Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has been killed in a CIA drone strike in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, United States President Joe Biden has said.
Al-Zawahiri was killed on Sunday in the biggest blow to the group since its founder Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011.
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“Justice has been delivered and this terrorist leader is no more,” Biden said in a special televised address from outside the White House.
Intelligence had located al-Zawahiri’s family in Kabul earlier this year, Biden said, adding that no members of the family or civilians had been killed in the attack.
An Egyptian surgeon with a $25m reward on his head, al-Zawahiri helped coordinate the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US that killed nearly 3,000 people.
Earlier, US officials speaking on the condition of anonymity told reporters that the CIA carried out a drone attack in Kabul using two missiles. Al-Zawahiri was on his balcony at the time, they said.
“It’s a significant blow,” Colin Clarke, research director at the Soufan Group, a global security firm, told Al Jazeera, adding that his presence in Kabul was also interesting in what it suggested about his relationship with the Taliban.
“It tells us he’s gotten far more comfortable over the past year since the Taliban took over,” Clarke said.
The Taliban confirmed the attack in Kabul – without naming al-Zawahiri – and condemned it as a “violation of international principles”.
The strike was carried out on a residential house in the Sherpur area of Kabul, a diplomatic enclave where many Taliban leaders live now, Taliban chief spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement.
“Such actions are a repetition of the failed experiences of the past 20 years and are against the interests of the US, Afghanistan and the region,” Mujahid said.
Al-Qaeda has yet to issue a statement.
In a statement, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said al-Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul “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”.
Washington and the Taliban signed the deal in 2020, paving the way for the withdrawal of US-led foreign forces in return for a guarantee from the Taliban not to allow groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS) to operate on Afghan soil. The US forces withdrew just before an August 31 deadline in what turned out to be a chaotic exercise.
Blinken said by allowing the al-Qaeda leader to shelter in Afghanistan, the Taliban had also “betrayed” the Afghan people and “their own stated desire for recognition from and normalization with the international community”.
Reporting from Kabul, Al Jazeera’s Ali Latifi said the drone strike took place in a “highly residential area of Kabul”.
“It’s near a grocery store, near a bank, and a main street. It is an area where previous warlords, governors and ministers have lived under the previous government. It is not anywhere hidden,” he said.
“That raises the question of how the current leader of al-Qaeda could walk into Kabul without the government knowing and that’s what the US is alluding to when they say this is in violation of the Doha agreement,” he added, noting that the Taliban also accused the US of violating the Doha deal.