As any leader would, President Joe Biden took a victory lap during his primetime address to the nation on Monday night. He touted the good news that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the mastermind behind the Sep. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, “is no more.”
He made sure to tell Americans the leader of al-Qaida, a man with a $25 million bounty on his head, had been on the most wanted list “for years under presidents [George W.] Bush, Obama and Trump.”
But Biden, our powerful, steadfast commander in chief, had managed to get the job done.
The truth is that, because of his predictable habits, particularly his fondness for spending time on his balcony, al-Zawahiri, 71, was a relatively easy target.
At 6:18 a.m. on Sunday, as the terrorist sat on the balcony of his safe house, which was located in the Sherpur neighborhood of Kabul in close proximity to the UK Embassy, the CIA sent two hellfire missiles his way, according to CNN.
PBS News reported that al-Zawahiri’s family had come to Afghanistan last year after the fall of Kabul handed control of the country back to the Taliban. The family moved into the home with the support of the Haqqani Taliban.
Although it’s unclear when al-Zawahiri arrived, according to PBS, the CIA had been tracking his movements for months and had put together “a pattern of life,” an outline of his typical activities on any given day.
A senior U.S. administration official told the media outlet that the terrorist leader had been identified on “multiple occasions, for sustained periods of time” on his balcony.
The official added that “multiple streams of intelligence” confirmed the individual they’d been tracking was indeed al-Zawahiri.
The CIA briefed “two senior national security officials” in early April and national security adviser Jake Sullivan briefed the president soon afterward, PBS reported. And after vetting the intelligence, officials met with Biden on July 1 in the White House Situation Room.
Mindful of the Pentagon’s accidental killing of 10 Afghan civilians in an Aug. 29 drone strike last year, the president was very concerned about avoiding collateral damage. For that reason, CIA officials had brought along a small-scale model of the home and explained that a “tailored precision” strike would minimize additional casualties.
Biden received an additional briefing on July 25 and authorized the strike “as soon as an opportunity was available.”
Though the strike occurred on Sunday morning, officials waited 36 hours before breaking the news to monitor the actions of the Taliban. PBS reported, “[T]hey watched the Haqqani Taliban network restrict access to the safe house and relocate the dead al-Qaida leader’s family. U.S. officials interpreted that as the Taliban trying to conceal the fact they had harbored al-Zawahiri.”
That the world’s most wanted terrorist felt comfortable enough to live openly in Kabul speaks volumes. There was no need for an isolated walled compound tucked away in Abbottabad, Pakistan, for al-Zawahiri, because he had the Taliban to protect him — or so he thought.
Rather than admitting al-Zawahiri’s death confirms what many of us feared after the fall of Kabul last year, that Afghanistan would become a haven for terrorists, Biden and his administration officials are portraying the strike as vindication of their “over-the-horizon” counterintelligence capabilities.
In his Monday night address, he said, “When I ended our military mission in Afghanistan almost a year ago, I made the decision that after 20 years of war, the United States no longer needed thousands of boots on the ground in Afghanistan to protect America from terrorists who seek to do us harm. And I made a promise to the American people that we would continue to conduct effective counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and beyond. We’ve done just that.”
In a Tuesday morning appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan echoed Biden’s remarks. He said, “Taking him [al-Zawahiri] out has undoubtedly made the United States safer.”
He continued, “It has proven the president right when he said one year ago that we did not need to keep thousands of American troops in Afghanistan fighting and dying in a 20-year war to be able to hold terrorists at risk and to defeat threats to the United States. … He proved that with this decisive strike over the weekend.”
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan tells @GMA that the U.S. drone strike killing al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has “undoubtedly made the United States safer.” https://t.co/efAF9GOCZJ pic.twitter.com/ZCYbZ9slD2
— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) August 2, 2022
And as hard as they try to spin it, America’s frantic withdrawal from the war-torn country last year made the world a more dangerous place, and will always be remembered as a humiliating military defeat.
Our hasty and perilous exit left us with neither a military nor an intelligence presence inside the country. We were assured this was okay because of our ability to conduct “over-the-horizon” intelligence operations. According to West Point’s Lieber Institute, this means that “the United States will monitor terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS-K without boots on the ground; develop actionable targets by means of sophisticated intelligence operations; and launch aerial strikes from regional locations.”
A successful attack on a single terrorist, albeit a valuable target, in one year, is not proof that over-the-horizon intelligence gathering is working.
Still, I must give the president his due. The death of al-Zawahiri is a foreign policy success. But it does not validate the effectiveness of over-the-horizon intelligence operations.
Nor does it exonerate him from the dumpster fire he started last summer, which was the most devastating, pivotal and disgraceful failure of U.S. leadership since the fall of Saigon.
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