US President Joe Biden has announced that Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri has been killed in a drone strike in Afghanistan.
“Justice has been delivered and this terrorist leader is no more,” said Biden in a live televised address from the White House. “People around the world no longer need to fear the vicious and determined killer.”
US intelligence had tracked Zawahiri to a building in downtown Kabul where he was hiding out with his family, Biden revealed, adding that no members of his family or civilians were killed in the attack. According to officials, Zawahiri was on a balcony when two hellfire missiles were fired at him from a US drone.
Former US President Barack Obama welcomed the news of Zawahiri’s killing. It was Obama who announced the killing of Zawahiri’s predecessor Osama Bin Laden in 2011. “More than 20 years after 9/11,” said the former president on Twitter, “one of the masterminds of that terrorist attack… has finally been brought to justice.”
As one of the world’s most wanted men, Egypt-born Zawahiri was a trained eye surgeon from a privileged and well-connected background, but he was radicalised in his youth. In 1981 he was arrested on suspicion of being involved in the assassination of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Although he was acquitted, he spent three years in prison for possession of illegal firearms.
Following his release, Zawahiri took over the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) group before moving to Saudi Arabia to practise medicine. A year later he moved to Pakistan and then Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. It was there that he met a young Bin Laden. He is said to have influenced the Saudi Arabian citizen’s ideology profoundly, steering him away from the relatively moderate ideas of his mentor Sheikh Abdullah Azzam. EIJ then merged with Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network of Arab mujahideen in Afghanistan.
Zawahiri became known as Bin Laden’s “right-hand man”, despite being the operational brains behind the movement. Following Bin Laden’s killing in 2011, Zawahiri assumed leadership of Al-Qaeda, but failed to exert the same level of influence and charisma as his predecessor, largely due to the movement having become a loose, leaderless network, as well as the rise of Daesh and its short-lived “caliphate”.
The killing of Zawahiri is unlikely to have much of an impact on Al-Qaeda as it exists today. A recent UN report suggested that it is positioned to overtake Daesh as the pre-eminent terrorist group threatening international security. “The international context is favourable to Al-Qaida, which intends to be recognised again as the leader of global jihad.”
Published last month, the report stated that Zawahiri is “alive and communicating freely”, but at present Al-Qaeda is not seen as an immediate global threat.