After Ayman al-Zawahri was killed in a US drone strike, terrorism experts were reportedly surprised by President Joe Biden’s description of his past actions, which they describe as overstated.
Biden described al-Zawahri as “a mastermind” behind the U.S.S. Cole bombing in 2000 and said he was “deeply involved in the planning” of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
While there is no doubt that the long-sought terrorist was the leader of a movement whose global jihad has killed thousands of people, Biden’s attributions go beyond how the government and terrorism specialists portray al-Zawahri involvement in the cited attacks.
Marc Sageman, a former C.I.A. officer who has written several books about terrorist networks, told the New York Times he was puzzled by Biden’s speech.
“Zawahri is a legitimate target,” he said a day after the president’s address. “But the justification they gave yesterday was inaccurate. I doubt it. I strongly, strongly doubt it.”
Biden’s remarks also sparked new action in the Sept. 11 and U.S.S. Cole death-penalty cases, when lawyers in both cases announced they formally requested evidence from prosecutors to support his claims.
In fact, evidence seems to suggest the opposite, especially concerning the Cole bombing in which two terrorists carried out a suicide bombing on the USS Cole as it was refueling.
Prosecutors in that case have filed multiple indictments against Qaeda operatives accused of participating in its planning, none of which point to al-Zawahri as key management figure, or “mastermind” behind the plot.
Similarly, a military charge sheet filed against five Guantánamo detainees who were accused of conspiring in the Sept. 11 attacks hardly mentions him.
“The 9/11 charges, discovery and proof so far make almost no mention of al-Zawahri,” said James G. Connell III, a capital defense lawyer for Ammar al-Baluchi, the nephew of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who is commonly described as their architect of the attack.
Mark Fallon, who was the commander of a Navy task force that investigated the Cole bombing and later oversaw investigations in the military commissions system, said, “It’s just not a factual narrative that they’re telling. It’s a talking point.”