Zawahiri's Death 'Final Blow to Bin Laden's Strategy,' Former Mossad Chief Says

Ephraim Halevy, who headed Israel's Mossad on 9/11, is satisfied by the death of the top Al-Qaida terrorist, but thinks it's important to remember how the U.S. at first helped Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri against the Soviets in Afghanistan

Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
Sam Sokol
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Osama bin Laden (L) sits with his adviser and purported successor Ayman al-Zawahiri, in 2011.
Osama bin Laden (L) sits with his adviser and purported successor Ayman al-Zawahiri, in 2011.Credit: REUTERS
Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
Sam Sokol

Efraim Halevy led Israel’s Mossad agency in September 2001, when al-Qaida terrorists shocked the world by killing thousands of Americans in the worst attack ever conducted on U.S. soil. On Tuesday, 21 years later, he felt satisfaction upon hearing the news that U.S. forces had killed the organization’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan.

“This is the final blow at the strategy of bin Laden,” said Halevy, who served for decades as an intelligence official in Israel and worked closely with U.S. partners after the devastating terror attack.

Zawahiri, an Egyptian surgeon who had a $25 million bounty on his head, served as the terror group’s main organizer and strategist for years. He succeeded Osama bin Laden following the latter’s death in 2011.

President Joe Biden announced al-Zawahiri’s death on Monday. "Now justice has been delivered, and this terrorist leader is no more," Biden said in remarks from the White House. "We never back down." No other casualties occurred in the strike.

There were rumors of Zawahiri's death several times in recent years, and he was long reported to have been in poor health. Until the U.S. announcement, Zawahiri had been rumored variously to be in Pakistan's tribal area or inside Afghanistan.

A senior U.S. official said finding Zawahiri was the result of persistent counterterrorism work. The United States identified this year that Zawahiri's family had relocated to a safe house in Kabul, then identified that Zawahiri was there as well, the official said.

Such an operation would have been extremely difficult, with Zawahiri hiding “under aliases and difficult to pinpoint,” Halevy said. “It was an American account to settle and it’s a tribute to Biden’s tenacity to approve such a strike.”

Asked if Israel had been involved at any time in the hunt for Zawahiri, Halevy replied that he did not “want to say anything about relations between us and foreign services. Certainly today I don’t know and from the past I won’t say,” although he did say that the 9/11 attacks impacted Israel’s level of cooperation with other intelligence services.

Halevy noted that Zawahiri wasn’t just a key figure in Al-Qaida until his death, but also played an important role in the foundation of the organization in the 1980’s, when bin Laden formed it out of the Mujahedin who fought the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Back then, the former Mossad chief added, there was a “direct connection” between Al-Qaida and extremist groups in the Palestinian arena.

“The movement in Afghanistan, that Zawahiri was part of, grew from several parties – some came from Saudi Arabia, there were local Islamist groups, and there was also a strong Palestinian presence,” Halevy said.

The most important Palestinian figure who worked closely with bin Laden and Zawahiri was Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian theologian considered a mentor to bin Laden. He died in a car bomb in Pakistan in 1989. Halevy noted Azzam’s life story is “prevalent in the culture of Hamas.” For Israel, links of this kind between the Jihadist movement led by bin Laden and Zawahiri and Palestinian groups, were always a reason for concern.

Halevy ended the conversation by noting that on the day America celebrates Zawahiri’s death, it is also important to remember that when bin Laden and Zawahiri started their activities in Afghanistan decades ago, they actually received support from the U.S. government, due to the fact that they were fighting the Soviet Union.

“This started under President Carter,” Halevy said, “the Americans thought the way to deal a deadly blow to the Russians, internationally, was to force them out of Afghanistan through these groups, supported and guided by the United States.” Bin Laden and Zawahiri, in his words, “received American support and then bit the hand that helped them to victory.” That, he concluded, is a lesson worth learning from in the future.

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