The U.S. announced it had conducted a drone strike on July 31 killing al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul. But social media posts make unfounded claims that al-Zawahiri had died in 2020 from asthma. The posts cite an unconfirmed story in a British tabloid, which reported a year later that al-Zawahiri was still alive.
President Joe Biden announced the U.S. had conducted a drone strike on July 31 in Kabul, Afghanistan, killing longtime al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al-Zawahiri was considered to be a key architect of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S., and became the leader of al-Qaeda after Osama bin Laden’s death in 2011.
After the precision Hellfire drone strike, posts on Facebook and Twitter surfaced with the unfounded claim that al-Zawahiri had actually died from asthma in 2020. The Facebook post cited a Nov. 20, 2020, news article from The Sun, a British tabloid.
A year later, al-Zawahiri emerged from hiding and released a video on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. The Sun subsequently reported on the video, dispelling the previous reports of his death. The Sun reported on Sept. 16, 2021, “Al-Qaeda chief Ayman [al-Zawahiri] has appeared in a gloating video released on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 atrocity — despite reports he died last year.”
In July 2021, a U.N. Security Council report from the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team noted, “Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is assessed by Member States to be alive but ailing in Afghanistan.”
On a call with the media on Aug. 1, the U.S. State Department said that al-Zawahiri was killed in the drone strike, citing the “careful, patient, and persistent work by our counterterrorism professionals.”
A senior administration official said, “Senior Haqqani Taliban figures were aware of Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul. Once Zawahiri arrived at the location, we are not aware of him ever leaving the safe house. We identified Zawahiri on multiple occasions for sustained periods of time on the balcony where he was ultimately struck.”
Addressing the ability to confirm that al-Zawahiri was indeed the person killed, the senior administration official said, “we have multiple intelligence sources via multiple methods that have enabled us to confirm that this was Zawahiri and that we were successful in achieving our objective. And while I can’t get into the details of that, we were able to confirm this in a fashion that enables us tonight to have the President go out to the world and announce that this has taken place with high confidence.”
Biden, in his remarks on the strike, reiterated confidence in the intelligence reports. “After relentlessly seeking Zawahiri for years under Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump, our intelligence community located Zawahiri earlier this year. He had moved to downtown Kabul to reunite with members of his immediate family,” Biden said.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby said that the U.S. did not have DNA confirmation of the death of al-Zawahiri and that the confirmation would not come through those means. “We have visual confirmation, but we also have confirmation through other sources,” Kirby said.
Colin Clarke, senior research fellow and terrorism expert at The Soufan Center, a nonprofit research center on security issues and foreign policy, also expressed his confidence in the mission in an email to FactCheck.org. “I don’t have any reason to doubt the White House on Zawahiri,” he said.
“US intel has been watching him since April and established a pattern-of-life. His family was also tracked to the house in Kabul. I don’t think the Biden Admin would risk making such an important announcement unless it was highly confident that it was indeed Zawahiri,” Clarke said.
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Chiacu, Doina. “U.S. has no DNA on Zawahiri, confirmed death by other sources – White House.” Reuters. 2 Aug 2022.
Clarke, Colin. Senior research fellow and terrorism expert, The Soufan Center. Email to FactCheck.org. 3 Aug 2022.
Holloway, Henry. “Terror Chief ‘Dead’ Ayman al-Zawahiri ‘dead’ – Al-Qaeda boss dies from asthma in Afghan mountain hideout, reports claim.” The Sun. 20 Nov 2020.
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