Afghans stunned to learn terror leader Al Zawahiri was living in central Kabul

The US claims to have killed the Al Qaeda chief in a drone strike in Afghanistan's capital

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US President Joe Biden’s televised announcement on Monday evening that an American drone had killed Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri was greeted with fanfare in Washington.

The US has long alleged that the 71-year-old surgeon-turned-terrorist leader, who took charge of Al Qaeda after the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, was one of the masterminds behind 9/11. The FBI had offered a $25 million reward for information leading to his capture.

In contrast, however, in the Afghan capital of Kabul where the strike took place, residents have reacted to the news with a combination of uncertainty and trepidation. Since Sunday morning, when an explosion now attributed to the drone strike was heard in the affluent neighbourhood of Sherpur, the city has been abuzz with rumours about what might have happened.

On Tuesday morning, security forces had set up numerous checkpoints in the area and security agents prevented The National from accessing the vicinity of the house believed to have been targeted. Neighbours on nearby streets would only say that they heard the explosion on Sunday and that it was extremely loud.

Before Mr Biden's address, many Afghans were speculating on social media that the attack may have involved a long-range rocket fired by ISIS militants or an anti-Taliban resistance group — or perhaps even a drone strike aimed at ISIS itself. Few would have imagined that the target was such a high-profile man as Al Zawahiri.

But a US drone strike in the heart of the capital has highlighted the fragility of Afghanistan’s newfound peace.

One Afghan man, who did not want to be named, said he was shocked and disappointed by the news, and what it might say about Afghanistan’s nascent Taliban-run government. Many Afghans are glad the 20-year war in their country, which was sparked by the US pursuing Al Qaeda leaders sheltered here, is over, and they want it to stay that way.

“[The Taliban] have made so many promises that they are not going to have any more relations with these kinds of groups [such as Al Qaeda],” he said. “So if this is true that Al Zawahiri was here, then how will they explain it?”

Afghan authorities have said little, first releasing a statement on Sunday that they were investigating what happened but that there were no casualties. Shortly after Mr Biden’s announcement, Zabiullah Mujahid, a government spokesman, confirmed that the attack was carried out by a US drone, but made no mention of Al Zawahiri or any other casualties.

Some residents of Sherpur, one of the most secure areas of the capital and where many government officials and wealthy Afghans live, remain sceptical of US claims to have killed Al Zawahiri. They referred to an incident last year when US authorities initially claimed to have killed a local ISIS leader in a similar drone strike carried out on another Kabul home, only for it to be revealed later that the victims were a civilian family with no links to the terrorist group.

In Kabul, distrust of the US remains high and with little information from their own government, many do not know what to believe, nor what any of this means for their future.

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Updated: August 02, 2022, 3:52 PM
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