Credit…Daily Dawn, via Reuters
Terrorism experts were surprised by the president’s descriptions of Ayman al-Zawahri, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike.
GUANTÁNAMO BAY, Cuba — In announcing last week that the leader of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri, had been killed in a U.S. drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, President Biden described the long-sought terrorist as “a mastermind” behind the U.S.S. Cole bombing in 2000.
Mr. Biden also said that al-Zawahri was “deeply involved in the planning” of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
There is no doubt that al-Zawahri was the leader of a terrorist movement whose global jihad has killed thousands of people.
But as a matter of historical accuracy, Mr. Biden’s words went well beyond how the government and terrorism specialists have described al-Zawahri’s record with regard to those two particularly notorious attacks.
Mr. Biden’s portrayal of al-Zawahri as a key plotter of the Sept. 11 attacks was echoed in many news accounts about his speech, including in The New York Times. But it surprised counterterrorism experts, as did the characterization of al-Zawahri’s role in the Cole bombing.
The remarks also raised new questions in the Sept. 11 and U.S.S. Cole death-penalty cases, which have been mired in pretrial hearings for more than a decade. By Friday, lawyers in both cases said they had formally requested evidence from prosecutors to support Mr. Biden’s statements.
Marc Sageman, a former C.I.A. officer who worked with Islamist fighters battling the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and later wrote several books about terrorism networks and radicalization, said he was puzzled by Biden’s portrayal of al-Zawahri and wondered where the purported role came from.
“Zawahri is a legitimate target,” he said on Tuesday, a day after the president’s address. “But the justification they gave yesterday was inaccurate. I doubt it. I strongly, strongly doubt it.”
Credit…Al Drago for The New York Times
During a briefing with reporters shortly before Mr. Biden delivered his remarks, a different senior administration official described al-Zawahri as Bin Laden’s “deputy during the 9/11 attacks,” which is not in dispute. That official did not mention the Cole.
Prosecutors in federal civilian court and in the military commissions system at Guantánamo Bay have filed multiple indictments against Qaeda operatives accused of helping plot the Cole bombing. Those documents are dozens of pages long, laying out the government’s understanding of the participants, meetings, financial transfers and other moves that made up the conspiracy.
They do not portray al-Zawahri as a mastermind of the operation, a suicide bombing by two men in a skiff that killed 17 American sailors.
A Saudi prisoner, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, is described that way in a death-penalty case at Guantánamo Bay. A C.I.A. profile at the time of his transfer in 2006 referred to him as “the mastermind and local manager of the bombing in October 2000.” His charges mention al-Zawahri as one of 26 participants in a Qaeda conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism in general, but not as the mastermind.
By: Miss Cherry May Timbol – Independent Reporter
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