White House touts al-Zawahiri killing as vindicating Biden's decision to leave Afghanistan

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(WASHINGTON) — The White House on Tuesday continued to highlight what it said was President Joe Biden’s “success” in killing Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al-Qaeda leader involved in the planning the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, saying it “has undoubtedly made the United States safer.”

National security adviser Jake Sullivan also said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that the strike vindicated Biden’s controversial and chaotic withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Afghanistan last August.

“It has proven the president right when he said one year ago that we did not need to keep thousands of American troops in Afghanistan fighting and dying in a 20-year war to be able to hold terrorists at risk and to defeat threats to the United States,” Sullivan said.

The White House also released a new photograph it said showed Biden in the Situation Room on July 1 getting briefed briefed on the proposed operation by CIA director William Burns and being shown a model of the safe house where al-Zawahiri was hiding.

A White House official later confirmed to ABC News that the closed wooden box on the table in the photograph contained the scale model of the house.

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When Biden announced al-Zawahiri’s death on Monday in an address from the White House, he stated “justice has been delivered” and he made a point of saying he had been careful before approving the strike that no civilians would be killed.

A U.S. official confirmed to ABC News that the CIA carried out the operation.

A separate senior administration official said Monday there was no indication of anyone else harmed by the two Hellfire missiles fired from a drone, missiles with rotating blades that use kinetic energy to kill, different from large explosions, to limit collateral damage.

But with no U.S. forces on the ground, it was unclear how the administration could be certain of that.

Al-Zawahiri was killed at approximately 9:48 p.m. on July 30 on the balcony of his safe house in downtown Kabul after months of planning among various parts of the counterterrorism community, a senior administration official told reporters Monday.

Biden was first briefed on al-Zawahiri’s whereabouts back in April, the official told reporters, and received updates on the development of the target throughout May and June.

Biden convened several other meetings with his key advisers and Cabinet members in the weeks that followed to carefully scrutinize the intelligence and evaluate the best course of action, the official said.

A final meeting was held on July 25, during which Biden authorized the strike.

The White House photo of Biden was reminiscent of a similar photo of President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the Situation Room watching the 2011 U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

While this most recent strike was largely applauded by members of Congress, Republicans focused on what they called Biden’s “disastrous withdrawal” from Afghanistan that they say reopened the door for al-Qaeda in the country.

“It is noteworthy where [al-Zawahiri] was in Kabul,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a floor speech on Tuesday. “So, al-Qaeda is back as a result of the Taliban being back in power and describing the current situation in Afghanistan as a success is utterly absurd.”

McConnell said the “precipitous decision” to remove U.S. troops from Afghanistan has “produced the return of the conditions that were there before 9/11.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is demanding an immediate intelligence briefing for Congress on the “possible reemergence” of the terrorist organization. Rep. Mike McCaul, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, went so far as to say Biden lied to the American people when he said last year al-Qaeda was “gone” from Afghanistan.

Sullivan pushed back on the criticism on “Good Morning America,” stating the drone strike is proof the U.S. can continue to go after its enemies “over the horizon” without endangering American service members.

“There is not a single American in harm’s way in that country in uniform and there was nobody on the ground in uniform when this strike occurred and yet we were able to take Ayman al-Zawahiri off the battlefield,” Sullivan told GMA co-anchor George Stephanopoulos. “I would call that a successful, effective policy that protects our troops, protects our people and ensures that Afghanistan will not be a safe haven for terrorists.”

But questions remain about how the U.S. will respond to the Taliban’s actions in sheltering al-Zawahiri. Senior members of the Taliban were aware of his presence in Kabul this year, the senior administration official told reporters Monday.

The official also said Haqqani Taliban members took actions after the airstrike to conceal al-Zawahiri’s presence at the location and acted quickly to remove al-Zawahiri’s wife, his daughter and her children to another location consistent with a broader effort to cover up that they had been living in the safe house.

Sullivan said the U.S. is in direct communication with the Taliban but did not reveal any specifics on how exactly the Taliban will be held accountable.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby also declined to provide additional details on what specific steps the U.S. will take to hold the Taliban accountable during Tuesday’s press briefing, but said the “strike itself shows how serious we are about accountability.”

“It shows how serious we are about defending our interests,” Kirby added.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday the Taliban “grossly” violated the Doha Agreement by sheltering al-Zawahiri. In the 2020 agreement, the Taliban said they wouldn’t harbor al-Qaeda members.

“They also betrayed the Afghan people and their own stated desire for recognition from and normalization with the international community,” Blinken said. “In the face of the Taliban’s unwillingness or inability to abide by their commitments, we will continue to support the Afghan people with robust humanitarian assistance and to advocate for the protection of their human rights, especially of women and girls.”

Despite the Taliban’s sheltering of al-Zawahiri, Kirby told ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Cecilia Vega that Afghanistan will “never” become a safe haven for terrorists.

“If you were to ask the members of al-Qaeda, ask them how safe they feel in Afghanistan right now,” Kirby said. “I think we proved … this weekend that it isn’t a safe haven and it isn’t going to be going forward.”

ABC News’ Ben Gittleson, Trish Turner, Allison Pecorin and Sarah Kolinovsky contributed to this report.

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