It was, no question, a victory for America and the world.
The drone strike that killed Ayman al-Zawahri, the leader of al Qaeda, took out one of the world’s most despicable terrorists, the intellectual force behind the group who, as Usama bin Laden’s number two, helped mastermind the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. And Zawahri pulled off devastating attacks before that, including the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, which prompted the Clinton administration to target him.
It was also a big win for President Biden, and yet no one felt more of a sense of closure than the families of the 9/11 victims. Zawahri was a central plotter for the hijacked airplanes that toppled the World Trade Center, slammed into the Pentagon, and would have struck a third target if not for the bravery of passengers above Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
That utterly transformed our politics for years, plunging us into an age of not bringing liquids on airplanes, passing homeland security laws and waging a 20-year war in Afghanistan.
This was not a military operation of the kind that killed Usama bin Laden in 2011, with Biden sitting in the famous Situation Room photo as he, President Obama and other leaders waited for the results of the Navy SEAL raid. While officials aren’t saying this publicly, it was a CIA counterterrorism operation. It took another 11 years for Biden to authorize the strike that killed Zawahri on Saturday.
Zawahri’s gray-bearded visage had become familiar to Americans when he took over al Qaeda and made a series of videos to deliver terror messages. It’s true he was past his prime, but this was about accountability.
From a White House balcony, where he is still sidelined by COVID-19, Biden told the country: "Justice has been delivered, and this terrorist leader is no more… 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 deserves credit for the tough call, as some Republicans acknowledged, but this is not going to transform the midterms. It will soon fade from the news with voters remaining focused on inflation, COVID-19 and other domestic issues. Even Obama only got a short-term bump for taking out bin Laden.
Now we come to a more complicated question.
Biden has a strong argument that his approach has been vindicated after he presided over the worst foreign policy debacle in generations, the violent and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. The president said then that the U.S. could conduct counterterrorism missions even without boots on the ground – and the CIA operation proved him right, with reports of no civilian casualties.
But Republicans are taking some shots over the fact that Zawarhi was in Kabul at all. Under the withdrawal deal – negotiated by Donald Trump in 2020, and later accepted by Biden – the Taliban pledged not to harbor any terror organization with international aims.
Is anyone really shocked that the Taliban, which claim to have had no idea of Zawarhi’s presence, are lying? He lived in a luxurious home in a wealthy gated community in the capital, not far from the U.S. Embassy. He returned after the Taliban takeover, let down his guard, and it took our intelligence service months to confirm his presence and his practice of spending time on his balcony, the spot where he was killed – after his family moved to another Kabul home.
Can anyone really doubt that the Taliban regime, which has also flouted its promises on human rights, is shielding other al Qaeda terrorists as well?
Some conservatives are ripping Biden for claiming al Qaeda’s presence had vanished. But the Taliban takeover clearly changed things.
That’s American politics. But the larger point – that the last remaining 9/11 plotter has been held accountable for his heinous crimes – is what history will remember.