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Biden appeared to overstate the role of Al Qaeda’s leader

President Biden.Evan Vucci/Associated Press

GUANTÁNAMO BAY, Cuba — In announcing last week that the leader of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri, had been killed in a US drone strike in Kabul, 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 attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

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’s founder, Osama bin Laden, and took over the organization in 2011.

But as a matter of historical accuracy, Biden’s words went well beyond how the government and terrorism specialists have described al-Zawahri’s record with regard to those two particularly notorious attacks.

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

The remarks also raised new questions in the Sept. 11 and USS Cole death penalty cases, which have been mired in pretrial hearings for more than a decade. By Friday, attorneys in both cases said they had formally requested evidence from prosecutors to support Biden’s statements.

Marc Sageman, a former CIA officer who worked with Islamist fighters battling the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s 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 came from.

“Zawahri is a legitimate target,” he said on Aug. 2, a day after the president’s address. “But the justification they gave yesterday was inaccurate. I doubt it. I strongly, strongly doubt it.”

A senior administration official declined to say whether Biden’s wording was part of his prepared remarks drafted by aides who had consulted with the intelligence community and other counterterrorism experts, or whether the president had ad-libbed it.

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The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter, defended Biden’s characterization of al-Zawahri’s record in relation to the specific attacks as accurate. The Justice Department had charged al-Zawahri, along with bin Laden and many others, as conspirators in the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the official noted, adding that the 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 Biden delivered his remarks, a different senior administration official described al-Zawahri as bin Laden’s “deputy during the 9/11 attacks,” which is not in dispute. That official did not mention the Cole.

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

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

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

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Nor is al-Zawahri portrayed that way in the 2003 federal court indictment of two accused members of the Cole conspiracy, Fahd al-Quso and Jamal al-Badawi. Both men were killed in US strikes in Yemen, in 2012 and 2019, with President Trump saying on Twitter that al-Badawi was “the leader” of the Cole attack.

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

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

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