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US drone strike kills top Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan

Ayman al-Zawahiri

The US president, Joe Biden, announced Monday night that a counterterrorism operation over the weekend in Afghanistan killed top Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, one of the plotters behind the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“Justice has been delivered. And this terrorist leader is no more,” Biden said in a rare evening address from the White House. “No matter how long it takes, no matter where you hide — if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out.”

Biden described al-Zawahiri as a “mastermind” of the 9/11 attacks and said the terrorist leader also played a key role in the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

“He carved a trail of murder and violence against American citizens, American service members, American diplomats and American interests,” Biden said.

Two people briefed on the matter told NBC News it was a CIA drone strike that killed al-Zawahiri.

Al-Zawahiri was second in command to Osama bin Laden during the 9/11 attacks and took over as Al Qaeda leader in 2011 after U.S. forces killed bin Laden in Pakistan. In that role, al-Zawahiri continued to call for attacks against the U.S. and its allies.

In 2001, al-Zawahiri escaped U.S. forces and his whereabouts were long unknown.

But U.S. intelligence located al-Zawahiri in downtown Kabul earlier this year, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters Monday on the operation. Authorities then spent months identifying a “pattern of life,” tracking his movements and daily habits to avoid civilian casualties, the official said.

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Intelligence officials created a model of al-Zawahiri’s safe house and used it to brief Biden on the risk to civilians, the senior administration official said. The weather, lighting and the building’s construction materials were also taken into consideration to ensure only al-Zawahiri died in the attack, according to the official.

Al-Zawahiri was killed in a drone strike at 6:18 a.m. local time on the balcony of his safe house. Two hellfire missiles were fired, the official said, adding that no civilians or family members of al-Zawahiri were killed in the attack.

The Associated Press first reported that al-Zawahiri was killed in the operation.

Al-Zawahiri’s death comes almost a year after the U.S. completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan, ending the nearly 20-year war in the country following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Biden was heavily criticized by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, as well as foreign allies, for his handling of the withdrawal that involved the death of 13 U.S. service members and hundreds of civilians as the Taliban quickly toppled the Western-backed government and took control of the country.

The administration official said Monday that the Taliban was not warned ahead of the strike against al-Zawahiri, and that the Al Qaeda leader’s presence in the country was a violation of the Doha Agreement signed by the U.S. and the Taliban in 2020.

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