Inside the operation to kill Ayman al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan

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Ayman al-Zawahiri, the 71-year-old leader of al-Qaeda, climbed onto the third-floor balcony of his home in an upscale Kabul neighborhood around 6:15 a.m. Sunday. It usually appeared in the morning, shortly after daybreak. Sometimes he read. He was always alone.

And the CIA was watching.

After hunting the co-planner of the September 11, 2001 attacks for more than two decades, US intelligence personnel had tracked Zawahiri months earlier to a safe house in Kabul’s Shirpur neighborhood, where senior Afghan officials own mansions. Members of the Taliban Haqqani faction patrolling the area knew exactly who their new neighbor was, US officials said.

Intelligence analysts monitored the house, creating a “pattern of life” based on the comings and goings of the occupants. They paid particular attention to the man who, as far as they knew, had never left. The others – now believed to be Zawahiri’s wife, daughter and children – took steps to avoid being followed home whenever they ventured out. “The long-standing terrorist craft,” a senior administration official called it.

The house appeared to be located in the secure part of the neighborhood, behind a large bank and several guarded alleys lined with government compounds. It was a short distance from the former US military headquarters and the US embassy in downtown Kabul.

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This summer, after President Biden was briefed on Zawahiri’s likely location, he ordered his advisers to take all possible steps to ensure that if they launched a strike, only Zawahiri would be killed, they said. officials. When the time came, the balcony offered the best shot.

This account of the Zawahiri hunt is drawn from interviews with several U.S. officials, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the operations and decision-making leading up to Biden’s strike order.

Zawahiri’s death, which Biden announced to the nation in a White House speech Monday night, can only be of marginal operational value. After so long on the run, he was more of a figurehead than a mastermind. He was nominally the head of a terrorist organization that operates as a network of affiliates in Africa and the Middle East.

But for Biden, the strike is an important political and strategic victory. Not only did the United States eliminate a top terrorist and help bring a historic end to the 9/11 attacks, but Operation Zawahiri also offered proof of concept for the “over the horizon” strikes that Biden has long argued will let the United States ward off the terrorist threat in Afghanistan without having to station troops there.

The drone attack was the first in Afghanistan since US forces left the country a year ago.

Just finding Zawahiri was an extraordinary break in a decades-long manhunt. In late 2001, amid a fierce firefight with US forces, he slipped away to the mountainous border region of eastern Afghanistan with al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. Zawahiri’s whereabouts have become the subject of rumor and speculation.

But for several years, the US intelligence community had been tracking a network of people who supported Zawahiri, who took control of al-Qaeda after bin Laden was killed in 2011 in a US raid in Pakistan. Zawahiri spent his fleeting years avoiding detection and sending ideological, often pedantic video missives to his followers.

After US forces left Kabul in August 2021, Zawahiri apparently saw a chance to reunite with his family.

Earlier this year, intelligence personnel identified Zawahiri’s family members living in the house in Kabul. It is not clear if Zawahiri joined them or was already there. But, using what the senior administration official described as “multiple streams of intelligence,” officials began zeroing in on an elderly man in the house in an effort to confirm his identity.

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For the CIA, finding and killing Zawahiri was more than an operational imperative. It was revenge. In 2009, seven CIA personnel, along with two others, died when a man claiming to have information on Zawahiri made his way to a US base in Khost, Afghanistan, and detonated a suicide bomb. It was the deadliest attack on the CIA in over a quarter century.

In early April, Jon Finer, the deputy national security adviser, and Liz Sherwood-Randall, Biden’s homeland security adviser, were briefed on the latest intelligence on the al-Qaeda leader. As the picture developed, Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, also received a briefing. Shortly thereafter, he informed the President that the United States may have located Zawahiri.

In June and July, teams gathered to verify the information, ruling out any other reasonable explanation for who was hiding in the house. Government lawyers have confirmed the legal basis for the operation, which is standard procedure for drone strikes. Zawahiri had a “continuing leadership role within al-Qaeda” and had participated in and supported terrorist attacks, the senior official said. He was considered a legitimate target.

While the lawyers and analysts worked, senior officials and their deputies met several times in the crisis room. “We needed to make sure our information was solid and that we were developing clear options for the president,” the senior administration official said.

By early July, intelligence personnel were almost certain they had positively identified Zawahiri and found a way to kill only him.

On July 1, Biden called a Situation Room meeting with key advisers and cabinet members to review intelligence and the strike plan. CIA Director William J. Burns, wearing a protective mask, sat to Biden’s right. On the table between them was a small wooden box, with metal latches on the sides and a handle on the top, containing a small-scale model of Zawahiri’s hideout.

The president reviewed the template and asked about the strike plan. He also asked how officials were sure they had positively identified Zawahiri. They accompanied the president in their analysis.

“He requested explanations of lighting, weather, construction materials and other factors that could influence the success of this operation and reduce the risk of civilian casualties,” the senior administration official said. Biden also called for an analysis of the ramifications, in the region and beyond, of launching a missile strike in central Kabul.

The president also had an American captive in mind – Mark Frerichs, a 60-year-old American civil engineer and Navy veteran who was kidnapped in Afghanistan in January 2020. The only known American hostage remaining in the country, he is believed to be were captured by the Haqqani network. Efforts to bring him home were underway and Biden wanted to know how the strike could jeopardize his return as well as efforts to relocate Afghans who had assisted US forces when deployed in the country.

On July 25, Biden called a final briefing.

Again, the president pushed for details about the damage the strike could cause to the safe house, the senior official said. He wanted to better understand the layout of the rooms behind the door and the windows on the third floor, where the balcony was.

Biden sought input from each adviser attending the briefing. Should he approve the strike? They all said yes.

On July 31 – last Sunday – Zawahiri walked on the balcony, alone. At 6:18 a.m., a CIA drone in the sky above fired two Hellfire missiles.

It is not known if Zawahiri reacted. But former officials who have participated in drone strikes say it is not uncommon, in the final seconds before impact, for the target to look up when they hear a projectile hurtling towards them.

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The key to keeping Zawahiri’s family alive seems to have been the choice of weapon. In the past, the United States has used missiles for precision strikes that are loaded with only a small amount of explosives, if at all, turning the Hellfire into a kind of huge fast bullet that will destroy everything what he will touch.

A US official said he believed a small Hellfire ammunition with the explosive force of a hand grenade was used. Photos from the hideout don’t show the kinds of burn marks normally associated with a large explosion.

Intelligence analysts reviewed various intelligence feeds, which likely included aerial surveillance, and determined that only Zawahiri had been killed. His family remained safe inside the house and no civilians were injured outside, the senior administration official said.

A few blocks from the site, residents and traders said Tuesday morning they heard a powerful explosion two days earlier. Some said they were frightened by the roar and shaking of the ground, while others said they had long been accustomed to such attacks from years of war.

“All the children ran away from the noise. We hadn’t heard anything like it since the previous government was in power,” said Haq Asghar, a retired army officer chatting outside a hardware store. He said the Shirpur neighborhood was tightly controlled by the Taliban and anyone occupying a house or shop had to provide detailed documents and information.

“Security is very good now. They certainly don’t let foreigners settle here,” he said.

After the strike, members of the Haqqani Taliban burst in and attempted to conceal Zawahiri’s presence in the safe house, restricting access to the safe house and surrounding areas for several hours, the senior administration official said. . They moved Zawahiri’s wife, daughter and children to another location.

The house that once housed the leader of al-Qaeda is now empty.

Pamela Constable in Kabul and Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report.

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