President Joe Biden on Monday confirmed that a U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan this weekend killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri, declaring "justice has been delivered."
"This terrorist leader is no more," Biden said in an evening speech from the White House.
Al-Zawahri's loss eliminates the figure who more than anyone shaped al-Qaida, first as Osama bin Laden's deputy since 1998, then as his successor.
Together, he and bin Laden turned the jihadi movement's guns to target the United States, carrying out the deadliest attack ever on American soil, the Sept. 11, 2001, suicide hijackings.
Biden said U.S. intelligence officials tracked al-Zawahri to a home in downtown Kabul where he was hiding out with his family. The president approved the operation last week and it was carried out on Sunday.
The president expressed hope that the killing of the al-Qaida leader brings "one more measure of closure" to families of the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
In a statement, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed that a strike took place 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, an upscale residential neighborhood of the city that also houses several embassies.
"There were no casualties as the house was empty," Abdul Nafi Takor, the spokesperson, said.
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.
His death also raises questions about whether Zawahiri received sanctuary from the Taliban following their takeover of Kabul in August 2021. The official said senior Taliban officials were aware of his presence in the city and said the United States expected the Taliban to abide by an agreement not to allow al Qaeda fighters to re-establish themselves in the country.
"The Taliban will have to answer for al-Zawahiri's presence in Kabul, after assuring the world they would not give safe haven to al-Qaeda terrorists," Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a statement.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Taliban had "grossly violated" the Doha Agreement between the two sides by hosting and sheltering Zawahiri.
Former President Barack Obama joined lawmakers in praising the operation.
"Tonight's news is also proof that it's possible to root out terrorism without being at war in Afghanistan," Obama said in a Twitter message. "And I hope it provides a small measure of peace to the 9/11 families and everyone else who has suffered at the hands of al Qaeda."
A senior U.S. official said finding Zawahiri was the result of persistent counter-terrorism work. The United States found out this year that Zawahiri's wife, daughter and her children had relocated to a safe house in Kabul, then identified that Zawahiri was there as well, the official said.
"Once Zawahiri arrived at the location, we are not aware of him ever leaving the safe house," the official said. He was identified multiple times on the balcony, where he was ultimately struck. He continued to produce videos from the house and some may be released after his death, the official said.