White House spokesman John Kirby admitted on Wednesday that Ayman al-Zawahiri may have been in Afghanistan since late last year, extending the al Qaeda leader’s timeline in the war-torn country amid criticisms that the administration’s disastrous withdrawal led to the terrorist group establishing a safe haven there.
Al-Zawahiri, who assumed command of al Qaeda after the death of Obama bin Laden in 2011, was killed Sunday while standing on his balcony in the capital, Kabul, by two drone-fired Hellfire missiles, President Biden said in an address from the White House.
US intelligence agencies said they had been tracking the movements of the architect of the 9/11 terror attacks at his safe house in Kabul since April.
Kirby was asked by Fox News’ Bill Hemmer on Wednesday how long al-Zawahiri had been in Kabul.
“We think that he was in Kabul since, if not late last year, early this year. That was based on information that we had by being able to track his family — his family’s movements there, and then him wanting to reunite with them,” said Kirby, the former spokesman at the Pentagon.
“You’re saying he may have been in Kabul as long as last year?” Hemmer asked.
“Well, late last year. We think maybe as late as December. I don’t mean a whole year ago, probably, you know, over the last six, seven months. But that was an indication that we had,” Kirby responded.
“We had to verify that, and that was from long, painstaking, meticulous effort in the intelligence community to verify and validate the information we thought we had, and that took months to do,” he continued.
Republicans praised the operation to take out al-Zawahiri, but raised questions about why the terror leader had felt so comfortable living openly in Kabul for so long and blamed Biden’s chaotic military pullout from Afghanistan last August for ceding control of the country to the Taliban, who once again provided al Qaeda a safe haven.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) responded to Biden’s address on Monday night to say that while al-Zawahiri may have been taken out, the rest of al Qaeda remains a potent force in Afghanistan.
“Contrary to what President Biden is saying tonight, our ability to combat growing terrorist threats in Afghanistan are on the margins. There are al Qaeda training camps emerging in Afghanistan like before 9/11,” the senator said in a Twitter posting.
“As I said when the Biden Administration withdrew all of our forces from Afghanistan, it was only a matter of time before the country became a safe haven for terrorism once again,” Graham added.
The GOP lawmakers referenced Biden’s comments defending his decision to pull US troops out of Afghanistan after 20 years.
“What interests do we have in Afghanistan, at this point, with al Qaeda gone?” Biden said last year.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said the Taliban were shielding al Qaeda in Afghanistan as they did before the Sept. 11 attacks.
“You can be sure Zawahiri wasn’t the only terrorist the Taliban are harboring,” Cornyn posted on Twitter Wednesday, linking to a New York Times story about Taliban rule since the withdrawal.
Asked on Fox News about the numbers of al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan, Kirby said he couldn’t get specific, but that “we do not believe that the number is very, very large, and we’re watching it as closely as we can.”
But he pushed back at suggestions that the administration claimed that the terror group was gone from Afghanistan after the pullout.
“I was very honest about the fact that we knew al Qaeda had some presence in Afghanistan even before we left, but we just didn’t have an exact fingertip view on how many,” he said.
“We’re starting to get a little bit more information now over the course of this last year. Obviously, we have more information, we were able to take out Mr. Zawahiri, but we would not assess that the number is very, very large,” he added.
Kirby also engaged in a heated exchange at Tuesday’s White House press briefing when questioned about the Taliban providing a safe haven for al Qaeda.
Fox News’ Peter Doocy asked him about the Doha Agreement in which the Taliban agreed they wouldn’t allow Afghanistan to become a safe harbor for al Qaeda.
“What are you going to do about it?” Doocy asked. “Are you waiting for a spectacular terrorist attack in the US to then say, ‘Oh, well, there’s terrorists in Afghanistan, now we can go get them’?”
”The strike itself shows how serious we are about accountability. It shows how serious we are about defending our interests. And we’re going to maintain — as I said at the outset, we’re going to maintain this over-the-horizon capability. In fact, I’d go so far as to say we’re going to continue to try to improve that capability going forward,” Kirby said.