Biden Appeared to Overstate the Role of Al Qaeda’s Leader

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba – In announcing last week that al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri had been killed in a US drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, President Biden described the terrorist he discovered as the “mastermind” behind the USS. Coal bombing in 2000.

Mr. Biden also said al-Zawahri was heavily involved in the planning of the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Al-Zawahri was the leader of a terrorist movement whose global jihad has no doubt killed tens of thousands. He was an assistant to Osama bin Laden, the founder of Al Qaeda, and took control of the organization. In 2011.

But as a matter of historical accuracy, Mr. Biden’s words went beyond how the government and terrorism experts have described al-Zawahri’s record in relation to those two particularly infamous attacks.

Mr. Biden’s portrayal of al-Zawahri as the mastermind behind the September 11 attacks echoed several news reports about his speech, including The New York Times. But the description of al-Zawahri’s role in the Coal bombing surprised counter-terrorism experts.

The comment also raised new questions September 11 And USS Coll Death-penalty cases, which have been stuck in pretrial hearings for more than a decade. As of Friday, lawyers in both cases said they had formally requested evidence from prosecutors to support Mr. Biden’s statements.

Mark Sageman, a former CIA officer who worked with Islamist fighters fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and later wrote several books about terror networks and radicalization, said he was confused by Biden’s portrayal of al-Zawahri and wondered where the role came from. from

“Zawahri is a legitimate target,” he said a day after the President’s address on Tuesday. “But the justification they gave yesterday was wrong. I doubt it. I strongly, strongly doubt it. “

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter, described Mr. Biden’s record of al-Zawahri with regard to specific attacks as accurate. It was by the Department of Justice Al-Zawahri, bin Laden and many others were accusedAs for plotting the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the official noted, the government “saw a path from that to major al Qaeda attacks in 2000, 2001 and beyond.”

Meanwhile A briefing with journalists Shortly before Mr. Biden made his remarks, a separate senior administration official described al-Zawahri as bin Laden’s “deputy during the 9/11 attacks,” which is not disputed. The official did not mention Cole.

Prosecutors in federal civilian courts and the military commission system at Guantanamo Bay have filed multiple charges against law enforcement officials accused of plotting the Coal bombing. Those documents are dozens of pages long, detailing the government’s understanding of the participants, meetings, financial transfers and other activities of the conspiracy.

They do not portray al-Zawahri as the mastermind of the operation, a suicide bombing by two men in a skiff that killed 17 American sailors.

saudi prisoners, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, as described in the death penalty case at Guantanamo Bay. A CIA profile at the time of his transfer In 2006 he was cited as the “mastermind and local manager of the October 2000 bombings”. His accusations Mention al-Zawahri as one of 26 participants in the law’s conspiracy to commit terrorist acts in general, but not as the mastermind.

Military charge sheet In 2012, a case was filed against five Guantanamo detainees charged with conspiracy in September 11 attacks Describing the group’s history, al-Zawahri is cited only for declaring joint war with bin Laden in 1998.

Within hours of President Biden’s announcement, former President Barack Obama Used similar language on TwitterCalled al-Zawahri “one of the masterminds” of the September 11 attacks.

But defense attorneys said the language did not match the description of the case at Guantanamo.

“The 9/11 allegations, findings, and evidence so far barely mention al-Zawahri,” James G. Connell III, nephew of Ammar al-Baluchi, capital defense attorney. Khalid Sheikh Mohammedwho are generally described as attack architects.

The senior military defense attorney in the Cole case, Navy Capt. Brian L. Mizer said al-Zawahri was found in pretrial evidence only as an al-Qaeda operative, not as someone with a specific role in the operation.

Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who investigated al Qaeda in the period surrounding both attacks, said al-Zawahri was not the operational mastermind of either attack. But as a senior leader, he said, al-Zawahri helped set the strategic direction for al Qaeda’s major operations during that period.

“He was involved in greenlighting operations and advising bin Laden,” Mr. Soufan said.

In particular, Mr. Soufan said, there was evidence that at a meeting of a council of senior al-Qaeda leaders, some opposed the Sept. 11 plot for fear of affecting his safe haven in Afghanistan, but al-Zawahri supported bin Laden’s desire to move on. .

Emil Nakhleh, a retired senior intelligence officer and director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the CIA, said al-Zawahri was absolutely a prime target. “We’re not putting $25 million on the head of a small fish,” he said.

But he considered al-Zawahri “al Qaeda’s strategic thinker.”

A senior administration official who defended Mr. Biden’s comments also pointed to comments by Kirk Lippold, who commanded Cole at the time of the attack. Mr. Lippold said in a news program last week Al-Zawahri, along with bin Laden, was “intimately involved in the planning”.

But Mr. Lippold, who declined to comment for this article, cited no specific basis for portraying al-Zawahri as intimately involved in the scheme. In his 2012 memoir about the incident, “Front Burner: Al Qaeda’s Attack on the USS Cole,” Mr. Lippold mentioned bin Laden about two dozen times but not al-Zawahri.

Mark Fallon, who was the commander of the Navy task force that investigated the Cole bombings and later oversaw investigations in the military commission system, said he recalled speculation that al-Zawahri may have been involved in planning both attacks, but was unaware of it. Evidence supporting a direct link.

“It’s not a factual story they’re telling,” he said. “That’s a talking point.”

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