Ayman al-Zawahiri, the 71-year-old leader of al-Qaeda, stepped onto the third-floor balcony of his house in an exclusive neighborhood of Kabul around 6:15 a.m. Sunday. He 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 Sept. 11, 2001, attacks for more than two decades, U.S. intelligence personnel had tracked Zawahiri a few months earlier to a safe house in Kabul’s Shirpur neighborhood, where senior Afghan officials own mansions. Members of the Haqqani Taliban faction, who patrolled the area, knew exactly who their new neighbor was, U.S. officials said.
Intelligence analysts monitored the house, creating a “pattern of life” based on the comings and goings of the occupants. They paid especially close attention to the man who, as far as they could tell, never left. The others — now believed to be Zawahiri’s wife, his daughter and her children — took steps to avoid being followed home whenever they ventured out. “Long-standing terrorist tradecraft,” one senior administration official called it.
The house appeared to be located in the secure section of the neighborhood, behind a large bank and several guarded alleys lined with government compounds. It was just a short distance from the former top U.S. military headquarters and U.S. 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 measures to ensure that if they launched a strike, only Zawahiri would be killed, officials said. When the time came, the balcony afforded the best shot.
This account of the hunt for Zawahiri is drawn from interviews with multiple U.S. officials, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the operations and decision-making that preceded Biden’s order to strike.
The death of Zawahiri, which President Biden announced to the nation in a White House address on Monday evening, may yield only marginal operational value. After so long on the run, he was more a figurehead than a mastermind. He was nominally in command of a terrorist organization that operates as a network of affiliates in Africa and the Middle East.
But for Biden, the strike is a significant political and strategic victory. Not only did the United States eliminate a prominent terrorist and help to bring some historic closure to the 9/11 attacks, but the Zawahiri operation also offered a proof of concept for the “over the horizon” strikes Biden has long argued will let the United States stanch the threat of terrorism in Afghanistan without having to station troops there.
The drone strike was the first in Afghanistan since U.S. 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 U.S. forces, he had slipped away in the mountainous border region of eastern Afghanistan along with al-Qaeda’s founder, Osama bin Laden. Zawahiri’s whereabouts became the stuff of rumor and speculation.
But for several years, the U.S. intelligence community had been tracking a network of people who supported Zawahiri, who took over al-Qaeda following bin Laden’s death in 2011 during a U.S. raid in Pakistan. Zawahiri spent his fugitive years avoiding detection and sending ideological, often pedantic video missives to his followers.
After U.S. 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’s not clear whether Zawahiri joined them or was already there. But, using what the senior administration official described as “multiple streams of intelligence,” officials began to focus 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 payback. In 2009, seven CIA personnel, along with two other people, died when a man claiming to have information about Zawahiri connived his way onto a U.S. base in Khost, Afghanistan, and detonated a suicide bomb. It was the deadliest attack on the CIA in more than a quarter-century.
Early this April, Jon Finer, the deputy national security adviser, and Liz Sherwood-Randall, Biden’s homeland security adviser, were briefed on the latest intelligence about 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 might have located Zawahiri.
During June and July, teams gathered to vet the intelligence, ruling out any reasonable alternative explanation for who was hiding in the house. Government lawyers confirmed the legal basis for the operation, which is standard procedure for drone strikes. Zawahiri had a “continuing leadership role in al-Qaeda” and had participated in and supported terrorist attacks, the senior official said. He was deemed a lawful target.
As the lawyers and analysts worked, top officials and their deputies met in the Situation Room several times. “We needed to make sure that our information was rock solid and that we developed clear options for the president,” the senior administration official said.
By early July, intelligence personnel were nearly certain that they had positively identified Zawahiri and had devised a way to kill only him.
On July 1, Biden convened a meeting in the Situation Room with key advisers and Cabinet members to go over the 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 top, containing a tiny scale model of Zawahiri’s safe house.
The president examined the model and asked questions about the strike plan. He also asked how officials were sure they’d positively identified Zawahiri. They walked the president through their analysis.
“He sought explanations of lighting, of weather, of construction materials, and of other factors that could influence the success of this operation and reduce the risk of civilian casualties,” the senior administration official said. Biden also asked for analysis on the ramifications, in the region and beyond, of launching a missile strike in the center of Kabul.
The president had a captive American on his mind as well — Mark Frerichs, a 60-year-old American civil engineer and Navy veteran who was kidnapped in Afghanistan in January 2020. The only known remaining American hostage in the country, he is believed to have been captured by the Haqqani network. Efforts to bring him home were underway, and Biden wanted to know how the strike might imperil his return as well as efforts to relocate Afghans who had helped U.S. forces when they were deployed in the country.
On July 25, Biden convened a final briefing.
Again, the president pressed for details on 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 windows on the third floor, where the balcony was located.
Biden asked the opinion of each adviser participating in the briefing. Should he approve the strike? They all said yes.
On July 31 — this past Sunday — Zawahiri stepped onto the balcony, alone. At 6:18 a.m., a CIA drone in the sky above fired two Hellfire missiles.
It’s not known whether Zawahiri reacted. But former officials who have participated in drone strikes say it’s not uncommon, in the final seconds before impact, for the target to look up as he hears a projectile rocketing toward him.
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The key to keeping Zawahiri’s family alive appears to have been the choice of weapon. In the past, the U.S. has used missiles for precision strikes that are loaded with only a small amount of explosives or even none at all, turning the Hellfire into a kind of huge speeding bullet that will destroy anything it hits.
A U.S. official said he believed that a small-munition Hellfire with the explosive force of a hand grenade was used. Photos of the safe house don’t show the kinds of burn marks normally associated with a large explosion.
Intelligence analysts examined various streams of intelligence, which probably included aerial surveillance, and determined that only Zawahiri was killed. His family remained safe inside the house, and no civilians were harmed outside, the senior administration official said.
A few blocks away from the site, residents and shopkeepers spoke Tuesday morning about hearing a powerful blast two days earlier. Some said they had been frightened by the roar and the ground shaking, while others said they had long been accustomed to such attacks during years of war.
“All the children ran away from the sound. We hadn’t heard anything like it since the old government was in charge,” said Haq Asghar, a retired army officer chatting outside a hardware shop. He said that the Shirpur neighborhood was tightly controlled by the Taliban, and that anyone occupying a house or shop had to provide detailed documents and information.
“Security is very good now. They definitely don’t let strangers settle in here,” he said.
After the strike, Haqqani Taliban members swooped in and tried to conceal Zawahiri’s presence at the safe house, restricting access there and the surrounding area for several hours, the senior administration official said. They moved Zawahiri’s wife, his daughter and their children to another location.
The house that once held the al-Qaeda chief is now empty.
Pamela Constable in Kabul and Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report.