Biden announces US killing of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri

By Maureen Chowdhury, Elise Hammond and Melissa Macaya, CNN

Updated 9:32 p.m. ET, August 1, 2022
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9:32 p.m. ET, August 1, 2022

Vice President Harris: "The American people and the world are now safer" after Ayman al-Zawahiri's death

From CNN's From DJ Judd

In a series of tweets Monday, Vice President Kamala Harris applauded a US military strike that successfully killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawihiri at a safe house in Kabul, writing that "the American people and the world are now safer."

“When @POTUS ended our military mission in Afghanistan, he made a promise that we would maintain the ability to protect Americans from terrorist threats. Tonight, with the killing of al-Qa’ida’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, it is clear we are meeting that commitment," she said.

“With @POTUS’s decisive action taking this terrorist leader off the battlefield, the American people and the world are now safer. As President Biden said, to all those who seek to do us harm, we can and will find you and deliver justice,” Harris wrote. “I am grateful to the members of our intelligence and counterterrorism community who work to make us safe every day and whose extraordinary skill made this operation a success.”

8:32 p.m. ET, August 1, 2022

Saudi Arabia welcomes killing of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri

From CNN's Hamdi Alkhshali

Saudi Arabia welcomed the announcement by President Biden on the killing al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, the country’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

“Al-Zawahiri is one of the terrorist leaders who led operations in the U.S. and Saudi Arabia,” the Saudi Foreign Ministry said in a statement released on Tuesday morning local time in Saudi Arabia. 

The statement added, “Al-Zawahiri planned terrorist operations that killed thousands of innocent people, including Saudis.”


8:37 p.m. ET, August 1, 2022

Biden warns other terrorist organizations: We will "always do what is necessary" to ensure US security

(Jim Watson/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)
(Jim Watson/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)

President Biden issued a warning to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups around the world, saying the United States "will always do what is necessary" to ensure the safety and security of Americans.

The remarks came as the President announced that a US drone strike killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul, nearly a year after the country pulled out of Afghanistan.

"To those around the world who continue to seek to harm the United States, hear me now — We will always remain vigilant, and we will act, and we will always do what is necessary to ensure the safety and security of Americans at home and around the globe," Biden said Monday in remarks from the White House.

The President said the United States would never again allow Afghanistan to to become a "terrorist safe haven."

"My administration will continue to vigilantly monitor and address threats from al Qaeda, no matter where they emanate from," he added.

Biden said it is his job as commander in chief to ensure the safety of Americans.

"The United States did not seek this war against terror, it came to us. We answered with the same principles and resolve that have shaped us for a generation upon generation," he said, adding those principles are to "protect the innocent, defend liberty" and "keep the light of freedom burning" as a beacon for the rest of the world.

"We do not break. We never give in. We never back down," Biden said. 

8:34 p.m. ET, August 1, 2022

Biden on killing of Zawahiri: "Justice has been delivered"

In this image from television transmitted by the Arab news channel Al-Jazeera on January 30, 2006, al-Qaida's then deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahri gestures while addressing the camera.
In this image from television transmitted by the Arab news channel Al-Jazeera on January 30, 2006, al-Qaida's then deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahri gestures while addressing the camera. (Al-Jazeera/AP)

President Biden said "justice has been delivered" after confirming in a White House speech that a US drone strike killed Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

"He carved a trail of murder and violence against American citizens. American service members, American diplomats, and American interests. And since the United States delivered justice to bin Laden 11 years ago, Zawahiri has been a leader of al Qaeda, the leader, from hiding, he coordinated Al Qaeda's branches and all around the world, including setting priorities for providing operational guidance that called for and inspired attacks against US targets," the President said.

He continued, "Now, justice has been delivered. And this terrorist leader is no more. People around the world no longer need to fear the vicious and determined killer. The United States continues to demonstrate our resolve and our capacity to defend the American people against those who seek to do us harm. You know, we make it clear again tonight that 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 explained the details of the operation, stating that after "relentlessly seeking Zawahiri for years under Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump, our intelligence community located Zawahiri earlier this year. He had moved to downtown Kabul to reunite with members of his immediate family."

Biden said after "carefully considering the clear and convincing evidence" of Zawahiri's location, he authorized the "precision strike" that killed him.

"This mission was carefully planned, rigorously minimized the risk of harm to other civilians, and one week ago, after being advised that the conditions were optimal, I gave the final approval to go get him, and the mission was a success," Biden said.

He added: "None of his family members were hurt, and there were no civilian casualties. I'm sharing this news with the American people now after confirming the mission's total success through the painstaking work of our counterterrorism community and key allies and partners. My administration has kept congressional leaders informed as well."

8:07 p.m. ET, August 1, 2022

Biden examined scale model of Zawahiri's home as he weighed taking out world's most wanted terrorist

From CNN's Kevin Liptak

The US drone strike that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri on his balcony in Kabul over the weekend was the product of months of highly secret planning by President Biden and a tight circle of his senior advisers, who constructed a small scale model of Zawahiri’s safe-house for Biden to examine inside the White House Situation Room as he considered his options.

Details of the strike and its planning were disclosed by a senior administration official as Biden was preparing to announce the mission Monday.

Here are key things to know:

  • The President was first briefed in April on US intelligence placing Zawahiri at a safe house in Kabul. American officials had been aware of a network supporting the terrorist leader in the Afghan capital for months, and had identified his wife, daughter and her children through multiple streams of intelligence.
  • The women utilized terrorist “tradecraft” that officials deemed designed to prevent anyone from following them to Zawahiri’s location in a Kabul neighborhood. Zawahiri himself didn’t leave the location after his arrival this year.
  • As the months wore on, US officials began to establish patterns at the house — including Zawahiri emerging periodically onto the home’s balcony for sustained periods of time. 
  • As officials continued to monitor his activities, an effort began in complete secret to analyze the building’s construction and structure, with an eye toward developing an operation to take out the world’s No. 1 terrorist target without compromising the building’s structural integrity. 
  • At top of mind for Biden and members of his team was avoiding civilian deaths, including the members of Zawahiri’s family who were living in the building. Independent analysis from across the government were involved in identifying the other occupants of the house. 
  • The fact that the building was located in downtown Kabul presented its own challenges as it was surrounded by a residential neighborhood. Officials were mindful their planning and information needed to be “rock solid” before presenting any options to Biden. And they were highly wary of leaks; only a “very small and select group” at a scattering of key agencies were informed of the plans being laid. 
  • As May and June wore on, Biden was kept abreast of the developments. On July 1, he gathered key national security officials in the White House Situation Room to receive a briefing on a proposed operation. CIA Director Bill Burns, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his deputy Jon Finer, and Homeland Security adviser Liz Sherwood Randall sat around the table.

On Biden's role in the mission: Biden was “deeply engaged in the briefing and immersed in the intelligence,” a senior official said. He asked “detailed questions about what we knew and how we knew it.”

Of particular interest was a scale model of Zawahiri’s house that intelligence officials had constructed and brought into the White House for the President to examine. Biden questioned how the house might be lit by the sun, its construction materials and how the weather could affect any operation, the official said.

“He was particularly focused on ensuring that every step had been taken to ensure the operation would minimize that risk” of civilian casualties, according to the official.

Biden asked his team for more information about the building’s plans and how a strike might effect it. He flew to Camp David later that afternoon.

His team remained behind, convening multiple times in the Situation Room over the next weeks to complete their planning, answer the President’s questions and ensure they’ve taken every contingency to minimize risks. 

A parallel effort by senior administration lawyers was underway to examine the intelligence related to Zawahiri and establish the legal basis for the operation.

On July 25 — as he was isolating with Covid-19 in the White House residence — Biden brought his team back together to receive a final briefing. He again pressed at a “granular level,” the official said, asking about any additional options that could minimize civilian casualties.

He asked about the layout of the house — where the rooms were positioned behind windows and doors on the third floor — and what potential impact the strike would have.

And he went around his team, asking each official’s view.

At the end, he authorized a “precise tailored airstrike” to take out the target.

Five days later, two Hellfire missiles were fired into the balcony of the safe-house in Kabul. “Multiple streams of intelligence” confirmed Zawahiri was killed.

Members of his family, who were in other areas of the home, were unharmed, the official said.

Biden, still isolating in the White House residence with a rebound Covid infection, was informed when the operation began and when it concluded.

8:39 p.m. ET, August 1, 2022

US successfully kills al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul drone strike

From CNN's DJ Judd, Kevin Liptak and Natasha Bertrand

The United States successfully undertook “a precision counterterrorism operation” in Afghanistan targeting and killing al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was sheltering in a safe house in Kabul, a senior administration told reporters Monday.

According to the official, “a precise tailored airstrike” using two Hellfire missiles was conducted at 9:48 p.m. ET on Saturday, July 30 – 6:18 a.m. Kabul time – via unmanned air strike and was authorized by President Biden following weeks of meetings with his Cabinet and key advisors. 

No American personnel were on the ground in Kabul at the time of the strike. 

The official said senior Haqqani Taliban figures were aware of Zawahiri’s presence in the area in “clear violation of the Doha agreement,” and even took steps to conceal his presence after Saturday’s successful strike, restricting access to the safe house and rapidly relocating members of Zawahiri’s family, including his daughter and her children, who were intentionally not targeted during the strike and remained unharmed. 

The US did not alert Taliban officials ahead of Saturday’s strike.

The US State Department had offered a reward of up to $25 million for information leading directly to his capture. A June 2021 United Nations report suggested he was located somewhere in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that he may have been too frail to be featured in propaganda. Pressed Monday, the official declined to say whether there was intelligence implicating Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence in assisting with hiding al-Zawahiri.

Biden, the official told reporters, “was, as always deeply, engaged in the briefing and immersed in the intelligence,” surrounding Saturday’s strike, and explicitly called for steps to “minimize the risk of any civilian casualties and take into account the ramifications of taking such a strike in downtown Kabul.”

According to the official, Biden, who is isolating at the White House after a rebound case of Covid-19, “was kept informed as the operation began and when it was concluded.”

8:20 p.m. ET, August 1, 2022

Last known public address by Ayman al-Zawahiri was released on July 13

From CNN’s Tim Lister and Larry Register

The last known public address of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was an audio message released on July 13 by the media arm of the organization.

The address was 22 minutes long and featured Zawahiri’s trademark historical and theological monologue by the de-facto al Qaeda leader.

In early 2022, it seemed al Qaeda’s leadership was enjoying a more settled period. Zawahiri issued several video messages that almost always provided current proof of life.

In a briefing by a United Nations panel of experts last week it was noted that Zawahiri’s apparent increased comfort and ability to communicate has coincided with the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and the consolidation of power of key al Qaeda allies within their de facto administration.

However, the panel said, al Qaeda is not viewed as posing an immediate international threat from its safe haven in Afghanistan because it lacks an external operational capability and does not currently wish to cause the Taliban international difficulty or embarrassment.

In April of this year, CNN reported that same panel of UN experts, in a different report, said Afghanistan under Taliban rule has the potential to become a safe haven for al Qaeda. 

It said some of al Qaeda's "closest sympathizers within the Taliban now occupy senior positions in the new de facto Afghan administration," and confirmed the return to Afghanistan of a former senior aide to the deceased Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

8:27 p.m. ET, August 1, 2022

NOW: President Biden is speaking about US counterterrorism operation in Afghanistan

(Jim Watson/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)
(Jim Watson/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)

President Biden is speaking now from the White House on a US counterterrorism operation that took place in Afghanistan.

According to multiple sources familiar with the matter, the United States successfully targeted al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a drone strike in Afghanistan, nearly one year after the US withdrew troops from the country.

“Over the weekend, the United States conducted a counterterrorism operation against a significant Al Qaeda target in Afghanistan. The operation was successful and there were no civilian casualties," a senior Biden administration official, said.

8:41 p.m. ET, August 1, 2022

Rep. Kinzinger calls killing of al Qaeda leader "huge," but warns US needs to stay vigilant


Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a member of the House Foreign Affairs committee, called the US killing of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri "huge" and a "moral victory," but said the United States needs to continue to keep its eyes on the terrorist group.

“This is huge,” Kinzinger told CNN's Wolf Blitzer. “It’s a moral victory, of course. al-Zawahiri has been a target of the United States for decades. It’s an actual victory in terms of making America safer.”

“While al Qaeda has been a little quieter lately, they certainly have not given up on their goals of attacking us,” Kinzinger said. “This is a big win. I congratulate the President for making the call and for the intel and military communities for executing this.”

The Republican lawmaker from Illinois, who is an Air Force veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the strike is "a massive blow" to al Qaeda, adding "we know that is what happened when Osama bin Laden died."

"We got a lot of intel from that, but it also was a gut punch to al Qaeda, but that doesn't mean they are done. There will be someone to come and replace him. He may already have had a successor he was grooming. Their desire to kill us simply because of who we are has not changed," Kinzinger told CNN.

He said the move to pull US troops out of Afghanistan in August 2021 led al Qaeda to believe "the United States could be beaten." Even after leaving the country, CNN reported that US intelligence and officials remained concerned that the group could plan a comeback in the country by partnering once again with the Taliban.

Speaking on the challenges of conducting a strike like this after the US withdrawal, Kinzinger said, “The challenge is massive.”

He added, “It’s very difficult. When you have troops and intel assets in place obviously they have their sources, you can get real time information. When you don’t have that, we’ve certainly been hamstrung in our ability to be able to target these kinds of targets.”

He said moving forward, it is going to be important to keep the US' limitations in mind when discussing partnerships and future actions around the world, such as moves by ISIS or al Qaeda in Iraq, for example.

"As great as technology is, technology cannot replace people on the ground that know things, that tell us things. That's why it's important to both have those assets on the ground, but also to be able to follow through on our word so when people tell us stuff, they know we're not going to abandoned them," he said. 

"The reason we've been safe is not because al Qaeda has changed their mind, it's because we have fought them where they exist," Kinzinger said.

CNN's Mary Kay Mallonee contributed to this report.