Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed in a US strike in Afghanistan over the weekend, the biggest blow to the militant group since the 2011 killing of its founder Osama bin Laden.
Al Qaeda Chief Zawahiri Killed
A senior administration official told reporters that Zawahiri had been hiding for years and the operation to locate and kill him was the result of “careful, patient and persistent” work by the counter-terrorism and intelligence community.
Until the US announcement, Zawahiri was rumored to be inside the tribal area of Pakistan or Afghanistan.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official provided the following details on the operation:
* For many years, the US government had been aware of a network it assessed to support Zawahiri, and for the past year, following the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, officials had been in the country for al Qaeda. Watching for signs of presence.
This year, officials identified that Zawahiri’s family – his wife, his daughter and their children – had shifted to a safe house in Kabul and later identified Zawahiri at the same location.
* Over several months, intelligence officers became more confident that they had correctly identified Zawahiri at a safe house in Kabul and began briefing senior administrative officials in early April. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan later briefed President Joe Biden.
“We were able to create a pattern of life through multiple independent sources of information to inform the operation,” the official said.
Once Zawahiri reached the safe house in Kabul, authorities were not aware of his departure and identified him on his balcony – where he was eventually killed – on several occasions, the official said.
* Officials investigate the construction and nature of the safe house and its occupants to ensure that the United States does not endanger the building’s structural integrity and without mitigating risks to civilians and Zawahiri’s family an operation may be launched to kill Zawahiri, the official said.
* In recent weeks, the president has convened meetings with key advisers and cabinet members to examine intelligence and evaluate the best course of action. On July 1, Biden was briefed about a proposed operation in the White House Situation Room by members of his cabinet, including CIA Director William Burns.
Biden asked “detailed questions about what we knew and how we knew it” and closely examined a model of a safe house that the intelligence community had built and brought to the meeting.
The official said he inquired about lighting, weather, construction materials and other factors that could affect the success of the operation. The President also requested an analysis of the possible effects of the strike in Kabul.
* A tight circle of senior inter-agency lawyers examined the intelligence reporting and confirmed that Zawahiri was a legitimate target based on his continued leadership of al Qaeda.
On July 25, the president convened his key cabinet members and advisers to receive a final briefing and discuss how the killing of Zawahiri would affect America’s relationship with the Taliban, the official said. After soliciting views from others in the room, Biden authorized “a precisely tailored airstrike” on the condition that it minimized the risk of civilian casualties.