As the sun rose in Kabul on Sunday, two Hellfire missiles fired by an American drone ended Ayman al-Zawahri’s decade-long reign as al Qaeda’s leader. The seeds of a daring counter-terrorism campaign have been planted for months.
American officials built a scale model of the safe house where al-Zawahri was located, and put it in the White House Situation Room for President Joe Biden to see. They knew al-Zawahri liked to sit on the balcony of the house.
Officials said they had carefully built “a pattern of life”.
Biden said years of efforts by U.S. intelligence agents under four presidents to track al-Zawahri and his associates paid dividends earlier this year, Biden said, when they determined longtime No. 2 position of Osama bin Laden – who co-planned the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States – and eventual successor at his home in Kabul.
Bin Laden’s death occurred in May 2011, in the face of a US strike team led by Navy SEALs. Al-Zawahri’s death came from afar, at 6:18 a.m. in Kabul.
His family, supported by Haqqani’s Taliban network, has been living at home after the Taliban regained control of the country last year, after US forces withdrew after nearly 20 years of fighting, in part. intend to keep. al Qaeda from retaking its base of operations in Afghanistan.
But taking the lead on his whereabouts is only the first step. Confirming al-Zawahri’s identity, setting off an attack in a crowded city that wouldn’t recklessly endanger civilians, and ensuring it wouldn’t get in the way of other American priorities has taken a lot of time. month.
That effort involved independent analytical teams that reached similar conclusions about the probability of al-Zawahri’s presence, engineering studies, and scale simulations of the building to assess the risks to these hazards. people around and the unanimous recommendation of Biden’s advisers to continue the beating.
“Clear and convincing,” Biden called the evidence. “I allowed the precision strike to remove him from the battlefield once and for all. This measure was carefully planned, rigorously, to minimize the risk of harm to other civilians.”
A year ago, this month, the consequences of wrongdoing in this style of judgment were devastating, when an American drone strike during a chaotic retreat of American forces killed 10 innocent family members, including 7 children.
Biden ordered officials to call a “tailored air strike,” designed so that two rockets would only destroy the balcony of the safe house where the terrorist leader had been hiding for months, not for occupants elsewhere in the building.
A senior US administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the attack plan, said al-Zawahri had been identified “many times, over a long period of time” on the balcony where he was we die.
The official said “multiple streams of intelligence” convinced US analysts of his presence, having ruled out “all reasonable options” other than his presence.
Two senior national security officials were first briefed on the intelligence in early April, and the president was briefed by national security adviser Jake Sullivan shortly thereafter. Throughout May and June, a small group of government officials worked to check intelligence and devise options for Biden.
On July 1 in the White House Situation Room, after returning from a five-day tour of Europe, Biden was briefed by his national security aides about the proposed strike. . At that meeting, the official said, Biden viewed a model of the safe house and advisers, including CIA Director William Burns, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and Director of the National Counterterrorism Center Christy Abizaid, questioning their conclusion that al-Zawahri was hiding there.
Biden, the official said, also urged officials to consider the risks the attack might pose to American Mark Frerichs, who has been held by the Taliban for more than two years, and Afghans who support the efforts. American war force, who remained in the country. US lawyers also examined the legality of the attack, concluding that al-Zawahri’s continued leadership of the terrorist group and support for al Qaeda’s attacks made him a legitimate target. .
The official said al-Zawahri has built an organizational model that allows him to lead a global network even in isolation. That includes taking video from the house and the US believes some may be released after his death.
On July 25, when Biden was isolated in the White House mansion with COVID-19, he received one last press conference from his team.
Every official involved requested approval of the operation, the official said, and Biden authorized the strike at the opportunity.
That consensus was lacking a decade earlier when Biden, as vice president, gave President Barack Obama advice he shouldn’t have taken – to delay the bin Laden raid, according to the memo by Obama.
The opportunity came early Sunday – late Saturday in Washington – hours after Biden once again found himself isolated with a recovered coronavirus case. The official said he was informed when the operation started and when it ended.
There will be an additional 36 hours of intelligence analysis before US officials begin sharing that al-Zawahri has been killed, as they watch as Haqqani’s Taliban network restricts access to the safe house and move. move the family of the dead al Qaeda leader. American officials explained that the Taliban were trying to hide the fact that they harbored al-Zawahri.
After last year’s withdrawal, the United States has fewer bases in the region to gather intelligence and conduct airstrikes on terrorist targets. It is unclear where the missile-carrying drone was launched from or whether the countries it flew over were aware of its presence.
The US official said there were no US personnel on the ground in Kabul supporting the attack and the Taliban were not informed of the attack.
In remarks 11 months ago, Biden said that the US would continue to fight terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries, despite the withdrawal of troops. “We don’t have to fight on land to do that.”
“We have what is called the ability to cross the horizon,” he said.
On Sunday, the rockets flew over the horizon.