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International relations

CIA drone kills al-Qaida leader Zawahri in Afghanistan: U.S.

Egyptian surgeon with $25m bounty on head helped coordinate 2001 attacks

Osama bin Laden sits with Ayman al-Zawahiri during an interview with Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir (not pictured) in an image supplied by the Dawn newspaper on Nov. 10, 2001.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri was killed in a CIA drone strike in Afghanistan over the weekend, U.S. officials said on Monday, the biggest blow to the militant group since its founder Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011.

Zawahri, an Egyptian surgeon who had a $25 million bounty on his head, helped coordinate the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.

One of the U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the CIA carried out a drone strike in the Afghan capital Kabul on Sunday.

"Over the weekend, the United States conducted a counterterrorism operation against a significant al-Qaida target in Afghanistan," a senior administration official said in a statement to reporters. "The operation was successful and there were no civilian casualties," the official added.

It was not immediately clear how the United States, which does not have U.S. troops on the ground, confirmed that Zawahri had been killed.

There were rumors of Zawahri's death several times in recent years, and he was long reported to have been in poor health.

His death raises questions about whether Zawahri received sanctuary from the Taliban following their takeover of Kabul in August 2021.

The drone attack is the first known U.S. strike inside Afghanistan since U.S. troops and diplomats left the country in August 2021. The move may bolster the credibility of Washington's assurances that the United States can still address threats from Afghanistan without a military presence in the country.

In a statement, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid confirmed that a strike took place and strongly condemned it, calling it a violation of "international principles."

Zawahri's whereabouts - variously rumored to be in Pakistan's tribal area or inside Afghanistan - had been unknown until the strike.

A video released in April in which he praised an Indian Muslim woman for defying a ban on wearing an Islamic headscarf dispelled rumors that he had died.

A loud explosion echoed through Kabul early Sunday morning.

"A house was hit by a rocket in Sherpoor. There were no casualties as the house was empty," Abdul Nafi Takor, spokesman of the interior ministry, said earlier.

One Taliban source, requesting anonymity, said there had been reports of at least one drone flying over Kabul that morning.

With other senior al-Qaida members, Zawahri is believed to have plotted the Oct. 12, 2000, attack on the USS Cole naval vessel in Yemen which killed 17 U.S. sailors and injured more than 30 others, the Rewards for Justice website said.

He was indicted in the United States for his role in the Aug. 7, 1998, bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people and wounded more than 5,000 others.

Both bin Laden and Zawahri eluded capture when U.S.-led forces toppled Afghanistan's Taliban government in late 2001 following the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

Biden's decision to kill Zawahri is sure to be compared to the cautious stance he initially took in meetings that led to then-President Barack Obama's order for the Pakistan raid that killed bin Laden in 2011.

Biden, who was then vice president, has acknowledged that he advised Obama to take more time. But he also told him to "follow your instincts" and ultimately supported his decision to go ahead.

Obama, in his memoirs, wrote that Biden was concerned about "the enormous consequences of failure" and counseled the president to "defer any decision until the intelligence community was more certain that bin Laden was in the compound."

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