Today's D Brief: US kills AQ leader in Kabul; Afghanistan's fraught future; 3 carriers near the SCS; Pelosi to Taiwan; And a bit more.

More than two decades after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. finally killed 71-year-old al-Qaeda terrorist leader Ayman al-Zawahiri with a CIA drone strike on Sunday morning near the heart of downtown Kabul, Afghanistan, according to the Associated Press. (Here are some images alleged to have been taken around the scene just moments after.)

Zawahiri had been Osama bin Laden’s most trusted deputy for years until the latter’s death during a U.S. raid in May 2011. In the 11 years since, Zawahiri “coordinated al Qaeda’s branches and all around the world—including setting priorities, for providing operational guidance that called for and inspired attacks against U.S. targets,” U.S. President Joe Biden said in a televised address to the nation Monday evening. 

How it happened: “Our intelligence community located Zawahiri earlier this year,” Biden said. “He had moved to downtown Kabul to reunite with members of his immediate family.” And he’s believed to have been relaxing in the residential building with his family when the strike occurred; though his family members—including wife, children, and grandchildren—were reportedly in a separate room and were very intentionally not killed in the attack, according to U.S. officials, who told reporters, “We identified Zawahiri on multiple occasions for sustained periods of time on the balcony where he was ultimately struck.” (And in case you’re curious, “There were zero American personnel on the ground in Kabul” for the strike, the official added.)

Biden: “After carefully considering the clear and convincing evidence of his location, I authorized a precision strike that would remove him from the battlefield once and for all,” the president said. And that suggests Zawahiri was under considerably close watch in the days leading up to Sunday’s strike, because Biden noted, “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. None of his family members were hurt, and there were no civilian casualties.”

The fact that Zawahiri was even in Kabul was a “clear violation” of the deal the U.S. signed with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, White House officials said Monday evening. That deal eventually led to the U.S. and allies hurriedly leaving the country after Kabul’s prior administration under then-President Ashraf Ghani collapsed suddenly under Taliban pressure in August 2021.

“By hosting and sheltering the leader of al Qa’ida in Kabul,” U.S. State Secretary Antony Blinken said in a statement Monday evening, “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…The world is a safer place following the death of Zawahiri, and the United States will continue to act resolutely against those who would threaten our country, our people, or our allies and partners,” Blinken said. 

The Taliban, in a likely face-saving gesture, disagreed about the alleged Doha allegation, but did not elaborate. (By Tuesday morning, the group’s spokesman used Twitter not to say more about Zawahiri, but instead to amplify an eight-tweet thread from the group’s propaganda minister, Inamullah Samangani, about oil exploration and mining projects with Chinese developers.) Read over the Taliban’s relatively short post-attack statement, here

Apropos of nothing: Zawahiri “was on the run even longer than Whitey Bulger,” former U.S. Marine officer C.J. Chivers tweeted Monday evening. 

What’s next for AQ? An Egyptian-born guy by the name of Saif al-Adl is “the man many expect to be the next leader of al-Qaeda,” according to Paul Cruickshank of the CTC Sentinel, from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Al-Adl is believed to now be living in Iran, where he enjoys “revered status within the movement,” according to former FBI agent Ali Soufan, who profiled al-Adl in Feb. 2021. Read that, here.

Others who could follow behind Zawahiri include Abdal-Rahman al-Maghrebi; Yazid Mebrak of AQ’s Islamic Maghreb branch; or Ahmed Diriye of al-Shabaab, according to Jerome Dreven of the Crisis Group, who cites a recent United Nations Security Council report for those suggestions. 

Bigger picture: “AQ faces a real strategic conundrum since its strategic direction is a failure,” Dreven writes. “While AQ framed its rationale as the necessity to fight foreign enemies to establish local Islamic states, but the latter are now possible only as long as local groups cease transnational jihad.” A bit more, here.

The strike also seemed to be an apparent vindication of Biden’s “over the horizon” counterterrorism strategy, White House officials told reporters Monday evening. “We showed that, without American forces on the ground in Afghanistan and in harm’s way, we remain able to identify and locate even the world’s most wanted terrorist, and then take action to remove him from the battlefield,” the officials said. 

“The United States did not seek this war against terror,” said President Biden in his televised remarks. “It came to us, and we answered with the same principles and resolve that have shaped us for generation upon generation: to protect the innocent, defend liberty, and we keep the light of freedom burning—a beacon for the rest of the entire world.”

For your ears only: There’s a new podcast about the seemingly fraught future of Afghanistan and its 40 million people, from Afghan-British journalist Nelufar Hedayat and PRX. It’s called “Kabul Falling,” and the first two episodes—entitled “The Fall,” and “A Knock at the Door”—were just posted on Monday. 

One more thing: America’s Afghan reconstruction watchdog, SIGAR, just released its latest quarterly report, covering events spanning April 1 to June 30. Among some of the findings: 

  • “18.9 million Afghans will continue to face potentially life-threatening levels of hunger—nearly six million of whom will face near-famine conditions”;
  • Ghor province is facing “catastrophe/famine conditions” that affect about 20,000 people;
  • Women must cover themselves completely when they leave the house, just as in the days right before the U.S. invaded more than two decades ago. Read over the full report (PDF), here

What are your thoughts when it comes to Afghanistan’s future? Drop us a line and let us know as we approach this one-year anniversary of the Taliban’s steep and sudden rise back to power in Kabul. 

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Welcome to this Tuesday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Jennifer Hlad. If you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. And check out other Defense One newsletters here. On this day in 1990, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi military invaded Kuwait.

Destination: Taiwan. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D.-Calif., does indeed appear to be heading for Taepei’s Songshan Airport, according to a flight plan made public recently and flagged on Twitter by local reporter Tingting Liu.
Already, Taiwan’s tallest building is lit with a welcoming message, including the words “Speaker Pelosi”, “Welcome to TW”, “Thank you”, according to Tingting, who shared images here.
The U.S. Navy has three carriers fairly close, “just outside the South China Sea,” according to Sam Lagrone of the U.S. Naval Institute News. That lineup includes the USS Reagan (CVN-76), USS America (LHA-6), and USS Tripoli (LHA-7). The “Official line is ‘normal operations,’” Lagrone tweeted, “but one defense official said the assets—already in the neighborhood—were hanging out to see what was gonna happen.”
ICYMI: The Chinese navy recently announced five days of live-fire exercises in the South China Sea, Bill Birtles of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation tweeted Monday, and shared maps posted by Beijing. Another China-watcher shared alleged satellite imagery of a Chinese carrier on the move near Hainan Island around July 31. Another user has shared video of apparent Chinese military vehicles on the move along the beach and by rail in the Taiwan-adjacent Chinese city of Xiamen.
Said U.S.-based China-watcher Bonnie Glaser: “The probability of war or a serious incident is low,” she tweeted Monday. “But the probability that the [People’s Republic of China] will take a series of military, economic, and diplomatic actions to show strength and resolve is not insignificant. Likely it will seek to punish Taiwan in myriad ways.”
Rewind: Back in 1991, Pelosi unfurled a pro-democracy banner in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square—before Chinese officials interrupted the scene, which was caught on camera and shared on Twitter just last week by CNN’s Kevin Liptak. Catch that 33-second clip, here.