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

GUANTÁNAMO BAY, Cuba — When President Biden announced last week that Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri had been killed in a US drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, President Biden described the long-sought terrorist as “a mastermind” behind the USS Cole bombing in 2000.

Biden also said al-Zawahri was “deeply involved in the planning” of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

There is no doubt that al-Zawahri was the leader of a terrorist movement whose global jihad has killed thousands of people. He was the deputy to Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, and took over the organization in 2011.

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 track record with regard to those two particularly infamous attacks.

Biden’s portrayal of al-Zawahri as a key conspirator in the September 11 attacks was reflected in many news reports of his speech, including in The New York Times. But it surprised counter-terrorism experts, as did its characterization of al-Zawahri’s role in the Cole bombings.

The comments also raised new questions in the September 11 and USS Cole death penalty cases, which have been in pre-trial hearings for more than a decade. On Friday, lawyers in both cases said they had formally requested evidence from prosecutors to support Mr Biden’s statements.

Marc Sageman, a former CIA officer who worked with Islamist fighters fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and later authored several books on terrorism networks and radicalization, said he was amazed at Biden’s portrayal of al-Zawahri and wondered where the alleged role came from. from.

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

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter, defended Biden’s characterization of al-Zawahri’s file regarding the specific attacks as accurate. The Ministry of Justice had accused al-Zawahri, along with bin Laden and many othersas conspirators in the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the official noted, adding that the government saw “a continuing line from that to the major Al Qaeda attacks in 2000, 2001 and beyond”.

During a briefing with reporters shortly before mr. Biden made his comments, another senior government official described al-Zawahri as Bin Laden’s “deputy during the 9/11 attacks,” which is unquestioned. That official didn’t mention the Cole.

Prosecutors in the federal civil court and the military commissions system in Guantanamo Bay have filed multiple charges against Qaeda operatives accused of collaborating in the Cole bombing. Those documents are dozens of pages long and provide insight into the government’s understanding of the participants, meetings, financial transfers and other steps that shaped the conspiracy.

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

A Saudi prisoner, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, is so described in a death penalty case in Guantanamo Bay. A CIA profile at the time of his transfer in 2006 called him “the mastermind and local manager of the October 2000 bombing.” his accusations List al-Zawahri as one of 26 participants in a Qaeda conspiracy to commit terrorist acts in general, but not as the mastermind.

A military indictment sheet filed in 2012 against five Guantánamo detainees charged with conspiracy in al-Zawahri cited the September 11 attacks only before his joint declaration of war with bin Laden in 1998, when describing the group’s history.

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

But defense lawyers said the language did not match the descriptions in the Guantánamo case.

“The 9/11 charges, discovery and evidence so far make almost no mention of al-Zawahri,” said James G. Connell III, a capital defense attorney for Ammar al-Baluchi, the nephew of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who often is described as their architect of the attack.

The senior military defense attorney in the Cole case, Navy Captain Brian L. Mizer, said al-Zawahri was only acting as a deputy in Al Qaeda in the preliminary investigation, 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 plot. But as a senior leader, he said, al-Zawahri helped set the strategic direction for Al Qaeda’s major actions at the time.

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

In particular, Mr Soufan said, there is evidence that at a council meeting of senior Qaeda leaders, some oppose the September 11 plot, fearing repercussions for their safe haven in Afghanistan, but al-Zawahri supported bin Laden’s wish. to continue with it. .

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

But he viewed al-Zawahri more as an “al-Qaida strategic thinker.”

The senior government official who defended Mr Biden’s comments also pointed to comments made by Kirk Lippold, who was in command of the Cole at the time of the attack. Mr Lippold said in a news program last week that al-Zawahri, along with bin Laden, was “closely involved in the planning.”

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

Mark Fallon, who was the commander of a naval task force that investigated the Cole bombings and later oversaw investigations in the military commissions system, said he recalled speculation that al-Zawahri could be involved in planning both attacks, but he was unaware of any evidence supporting a direct link.

“It’s just not a factual story they’re telling,” he said. “It’s a topic of conversation.”

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