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3 things the strike on al-Zawahiri tell us about the U.S. counterterrorism strategy

President Biden meets with his national security team on July 1 to discuss the drone strike that killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri on July 31. The wooden box in front of the president contains a replica of the house where al-Zawahiri was living in Kabul, Afghanistan.
White House
President Biden meets with his national security team on July 1 to discuss the drone strike that killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri on July 31. The wooden box in front of the president contains a replica of the house where al-Zawahiri was living in Kabul, Afghanistan.

A deadly U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan over the weekend offered several clues about what U.S. counterterrorism strategy is likely to look like in the future.

First, the target was al-Qaida's top leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, a man the U.S. had pursued for more than two decades. The strike showed the U.S. could still track hard-to-find extremist leaders even if it takes years to find them.

Second, this was the first high-profile U.S. attack in Afghanistan since U.S. troops withdrew in August of last year. Such strikes are far less frequent than during the height of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they remain part of the arsenal.

Third, U.S. national security priorities have moved on after 20 years of wars against Islamist extremists. Russia's war in Ukraine is the most pressing concern at the moment, and China is the biggest challenge in the long term. But extremism remains a threat that will emerge periodically.

"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," President Biden said Monday evening from the White House.

Before approving the operation, Biden met multiple times with his national security team. This included a July 1 gathering in the White House Situation Room where advisers presented the president with a replica of house where al-Zawahiri was living in the capital Kabul. The White House has now released a photo of that meeting.

According to a senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Biden "sought explanations of lighting, of weather, of construction materials, and of other factors that could influence the success of this operation and reduce the risk of civilian casualties."

The strike shows the U.S. can still monitor threats from abroad

U.S. officials said they learned earlier this year that al-Zawahiri's family moved into the safe house earlier this year in the upscale Kabul neighborhood of Sherpur, a diplomatic area that many Taliban leaders now call home.

At some point, Zawahiri joined them. The U.S. officials said al-Zawahiri never left the house, but they were able to establish a pattern of his movements.

This allowed the U.S. to carry out the drone strike with two Hellfire missiles on Sunday morning when al-Zawahiri was on the balcony of the home, according to U.S. officials.

The officials did not say where they launched the drone, but the U.S. no longer has any military bases in the immediate region, suggesting the aircraft may have flown a long distance before reaching its target.

John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the White House's National Security Council, told Morning Edition that the strike deals a significant blow to al-Qaida's operations, and proves that the U.S. will not let Afghanistan become a safe haven for terrorists.

"We said a year ago that we knew al-Qaida was starting to move back, in small numbers, into Afghanistan," Kirby added. "We were honest about that. We also said that the plan isn't to hit every single al-Qaida terrorist with a missile, it's to make sure that we are defeating those threats to our homeland, to the American people. Mr. Zawahiri presented that kind of a threat and that's why we took him out."

Zawahiri's hideout suggests ties between al-Qaida and Taliban

Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep, who was in Kabul at the time of the Sunday strike, says residents were awoken by the sound of at least one early-morning explosion and later shared images of a multi-story house with the windows blown out.

People walk through a road in the Sherpur area of Kabul, where Ayman al-Zawahiri lived, on Tuesday.
Wakil Kohsar / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
People walk through a road in the Sherpur area of Kabul, where Ayman al-Zawahiri lived, on Tuesday.

"We drove to the area of the targeted house this morning and found Taliban fighters blocking and guarding the approaches to it, but otherwise life seemed to be going on as usual in the streets all around," he told Morning Edition on Tuesday. "It's near embassies, it's near government buildings and, in fact, the government intelligence headquarters is just a few minutes' drive away from where, according to the U.S., Zawahiri was hiding."

It's an extraordinary development, Inskeep says, considering that it was the Taliban's sheltering of Osama bin Laden after 9/11 that prompted the U.S. to attack Afghanistan in the first place, back in 2001.

The fact that al-Zawahiri was sheltering in the heart of the capital suggests there is still a close relationship between al-Qaida and the Taliban, which had pledged in the 2020 Doha agreement not to harbor extremists.

In a statement on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused the Taliban of breaking its word and betraying the Afghan people.

"By hosting and sheltering the leader of al-Qaida in Kabul, the Taliban grossly violated the Doha Agreement and repeated assurances to the world that they would not allow Afghan territory to be used by terrorists to threaten the security of other countries," Blinken said.

In turn, the Taliban, which has not confirmed al-Zawahiri's death, blamed the U.S. for violating the agreement by striking Afghanistan.

Al-Qaida is diminished, but U.S. says it will stay vigilant

The U.S. and the Taliban were already at odds, and the U.S. has refused to recognize the group as the government of Afghanistan, as have most other countries.

While the U.S. is providing humanitarian assistance, Afghanistan is painfully low on food, medicine and other basics.

As the U.S. was pulling out a year ago, American military leaders said they would continue to keep tabs on Afghanistan from "over the horizon."

Many doubted the U.S. ability to do with the military gone, the embassy closed and intelligence being much more difficult to gather. But the drone strike showed the U.S. was able to gather detailed intelligence and carry out a long-range strike, at least in this instance.

Kirby says al-Zawahiri was "actively engaged in urging his followers to plot and plan attacks" including potentially in the U.S. With history as a guide, he says al-Qaida leaders are expected to name a successor to al-Zawahiri.

Al-Qaida still poses a threat to the U.S., he adds, even if it is a "vastly diminished terrorist network" than it was two decades ago, or even in 2011 when the U.S. killed Bin Laden.

However, the U.S. considers the Islamic State a much greater danger these days, including in Afghanistan, where the group is at odds with the Taliban and al-Qaida and has been blamed for many deadly attacks.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.