The United States killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a “precision” strike in the heart of the Afghanistan capital Kabul, President Joe Biden said, the biggest blow to the militant group since its founder Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011.
Zawahiri, an Egyptian surgeon who had a $25 million bounty on his head, helped to coordinate the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States that killed nearly 3,000 people.
U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Zawahiri was killed when he came out on the balcony of his safe house in Kabul at 6:18 a.m. (0148 GMT) on Sunday morning and was hit by Hellfire missiles from a U.S. drone.
“Now justice has been delivered, and this terrorist leader is no more,” Biden said in televised remarks from the White House on Monday. “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 said he authorised the precision strike in downtown Kabul after months of planning and that no civilians were killed.
Three spokespeople in the Taliban administration in Kabul declined comment on Zawahiri’s death.
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid had previously confirmed that a strike took place in Kabul on Sunday and strongly condemned it, calling it a violation of “international principles.”
A spokesperson for the interior ministry said a house was hit by a rocket in Sherpoor, a leafy, upscale residential neighbourhood in the centre of the city.
“There were no casualties as the house was empty,” Abdul Nafi Takor, the spokesperson, said.
Taliban authorities threw a security dragnet around the house in Sherpoor on Tuesday and journalists were not allowed nearby.
A woman who lives in the neighbourhood and spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity said she and her family of nine moved to the safe room of their house when she heard an explosion at the weekend. When she later went to the rooftop, she saw no commotion or chaos and assumed it was a rocket or bomb attack – which is not uncommon in Kabul.
A senior Taliban official told Reuters that Zawahiri was previously in Helmand province and had moved to Kabul after the Taliban took over the country in August last year.
U.S. intelligence determined with “high confidence” through multiple intelligence streams that the man killed was Zawahiri, one senior administration official told reporters.
“Zawahiri continued to pose an active threat to U.S. persons, interests and national security,” the official said on a conference call. “His death deals a significant blow to al Qaeda and will degrade the group’s ability to operate.”