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

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

Mr. Biden also said that al-Zawahri was “deeply involved within the planning” of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

There is no such thing as a doubt that al-Zawahri was the leader of a terrorist movement whose global jihad has killed 1000’s of individuals. He was the deputy to Al Qaeda’s 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 federal government and terrorism specialists have described al-Zawahri’s record with regard to those two particularly notorious attacks.

Mr. Biden’s portrayal of al-Zawahri as a key plotter of the Sept. 11 attacks was echoed in lots of news accounts about his speech, including in The Recent York Times. But it surely surprised counterterrorism experts, as did the characterization of al-Zawahri’s role within the Cole bombing.

The remarks also raised latest questions within the Sept. 11 and U.S.S. Cole death-penalty cases, which have been mired in pretrial hearings for greater than a decade. By Friday, lawyers in each cases said that they had formally requested evidence from prosecutors to support Mr. Biden’s statements.

Marc Sageman, a former C.I.A. officer who worked with Islamist fighters battling the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan within the Eighties and later wrote several books about terrorism networks and radicalization, said he was puzzled by Biden’s portrayal of al-Zawahri and wondered where the purported role got here from.

“Zawahri is a legitimate goal,” he said on Tuesday, a day after the president’s address. “However the justification they gave yesterday was inaccurate. I doubt it. I strongly, strongly doubt it.”

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to debate the sensitive matter, defended Mr. Biden’s characterization of al-Zawahri’s record in relation to the precise attacks as accurate. The Justice Department had charged al-Zawahri, together with Bin Laden and lots of others, as conspirators within the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the official noted, adding that the federal government saw “a through line from that to Al Qaeda’s major attacks in 2000, 2001 and beyond.”

During a briefing with reporters shortly before Mr. Biden delivered his remarks, a special senior administration official described al-Zawahri as Bin Laden’s “deputy through the 9/11 attacks,” which is just not in dispute. That official didn’t mention the Cole.

Prosecutors in federal civilian court and within the military commissions system at Guantánamo Bay have filed multiple indictments against Qaeda operatives accused of helping plot the Cole bombing. Those documents are dozens of pages long, laying out the federal government’s understanding of the participants, meetings, financial transfers and other moves that made up the conspiracy.

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

A Saudi prisoner, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, is described that way in a death-penalty case at Guantánamo Bay. A C.I.A. profile on the time of his transfer in 2006 referred to him as “the mastermind and native manager of the bombing in October 2000.” His charges mention al-Zawahri as certainly one of 26 participants in a Qaeda conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism basically, but not because the mastermind.

A military charge sheet filed in 2012 against five Guantánamo detainees who were accused of conspiring in the Sept. 11 attacks mentioned al-Zawahri just for his joint declaration of war with Bin Laden in 1998, in describing the group’s history.

Inside hours of President Biden’s announcement, former President Barack Obama used similar language on Twitter, calling al-Zawahri “certainly one of the masterminds” of the Sept. 11 attacks.

But defense lawyers said the language didn’t match the descriptions within the case at Guantánamo.

“The 9/11 charges, discovery and proof to this point 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 usually described as their architect of the attack.

The senior military defense lawyer within the Cole case, Capt. Brian L. Mizer of the Navy, said that al-Zawahri figured in pretrial evidence only as a deputy in Al Qaeda, not as someone who had a particular role within the operation.

Ali Soufan, a former F.B.I. agent who investigated Al Qaeda within the period surrounding each 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 during that point.

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

Specifically, Mr. Soufan said, there may be evidence that at a council meeting of senior Qaeda leaders, some opposed the Sept. 11 plot, fearing repercussions for his or her shelter in Afghanistan, but al-Zawahri backed Bin Laden’s desire to go forward with it.

Emile Nakhleh, a retired senior intelligence service officer and director of the Political Islam Strategic Evaluation Program on the C.I.A., said al-Zawahri was absolutely a crucial goal. “We don’t put $25 million on the pinnacle of a small fish,” he said.

But he considered al-Zawahri to be more of a “strategic thinker of Al Qaeda.”

The senior administration official who defended Mr. Biden’s remarks also pointed to comments by Kirk Lippold, who commanded the Cole on the time of the attack. Mr. Lippold said on a news program last week that al-Zawahri, together with Bin Laden, had been “intimately involved within the planning.”

But Mr. Lippold, who declined to comment for this text, didn’t cite any specific basis for portraying al-Zawahri as intimately involved within the planning. In his 2012 memoir in regards to the incident, “Front Burner: Al Qaeda’s Attack on the usS. Cole,” Mr. Lippold mentioned Bin Laden about two dozen times but didn’t mention al-Zawahri.

Mark Fallon, who was the commander of a Navy task force that investigated the Cole bombing and later oversaw investigations within the military commissions system, said he recalled speculation that al-Zawahri may need been involved in planning each attacks, but he was not aware of evidence supporting a direct link.

“It’s just not a factual narrative that they’re telling,” he said. “It’s a talking point.”

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