IIn the end, it was one of the oldest mistakes in the fugitive’s handbook that apparently made for Ayman al-Zawahirithe senior al-Qaeda official killed, according to American intelligence, by a drone strike on Sunday morning: he has developed a habit.
The co-organizer of the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington had taken a liking to sitting on the balcony of his safe house in Sherpur, an affluent diplomatic enclave in Kabul. He especially loved going out on the balcony after morning prayers, so he could watch the sun rise over the Afghan capital.
According to a US official who briefed reporters on Monday, it was such consistent behavior that allowed intelligence agents, presumably from the CIA, to piece together what they called “a life pattern” of the target. This allowed them to launch what the White House called a “tailored airstrike” involving two Hellfire missiles fired from a Reaper drone that reportedly hit the balcony, with Zawahiri on it, at 6:18 a.m. Sunday.
It was the culmination of a decades-long hunt for the Egyptian surgeon who, at the time he was killed, had a $25 million bounty on his head. Zawahiri, 71, has been held responsible not only for his role as bin Laden’s second-in-command in 9/11, with its death toll nearing 3,000, but also for several other of the deadliest attacks in al -Qaeda, including the suicide bombing of USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000, which killed 17 American sailors.
The mission to go after the al-Qaida leader was triggered, US officials said, in early April, when intelligence sources picked up signals that Zawahiri and his family had left their mountainside safe houses and settled in Kabul. After the return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan Last August, and with the support of the Haqqani Taliban network, Zawahiri and his wife, along with their daughter and grandchildren, moved into the Sherpur house.
In their account of events, US officials went to great lengths to point out that, under instructions from Joe Biden, the mission was carried out with care and precision to avoid civilian casualties. and US officials said no one else was killed or injured in the attack.
Social media footage of the strike suggests the use of a modified Hellfire called R9X with six blades to damage targets, sources familiar with the weapon told Reuters. They caused surprisingly little damage beyond the target, suggesting they may be a version of the missile shrouded in secrecy and used by the United States to prevent non-combat casualties.
The US president was first briefed on Zawahiri’s whereabouts in April, and for the next two months a tight-knit group of officials dug into intelligence and devised a plan. A model of the Sherpur house has been built, showing the balcony where the al-Qaeda leader liked to sit. As talk of a potential strike grew more intense, the model was brought into the White House Situation Room on July 1 so Biden could see it for himself.
The president “examined closely the model of al-Zawahiri’s house that the intelligence community had built and brought it to the White House Situation Room for briefings on this issue,” a senior official told reporters. administration.
The White House issued new statements to bolster its argument that the attack was legal, flawless, and with loss of life limited to Zawahiri alone. Officials said engineers were brought in to analyze the safe house and assess what would happen to it structurally following a drone strike.
Lawyers were also consulted to find out if the attack was legal. They said yes, given the target’s prominent role as the leader of a terrorist group.
Biden, now quarantined with Covid, received a final briefing on July 25 and gave the go-ahead. It was a decision in stark contrast to the advice he gave Barack Obama in May 2011 not to proceed with the special forces mission that killed bin Laden in a raid on his safe house in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
On Monday night, Biden stood on his own balcony — this one at the White House with the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial as backdrops — to address the nation.
“I authorized the precision strike that would remove him from the battlefield once and for all,” Biden said. “This measure was carefully planned, rigorously, to minimize the risk of injury to other civilians.”
Biden’s insistence that no one but the al-Qaeda leader was killed in the attack has been repeatedly amplified by US officials. The account given by the White House was that Zawahiri had been cleanly eliminated through the application of modern technological warfare.
Skepticism remains, despite the protests. Over the years, drone strikes have often proven to be anything but accurate.
In August last year, such a US drone strike in Kabul was initially hailed by the Pentagon as a successful mission to eliminate a potential terrorist who was planning an attack on the city’s airport. It’s only after the New York Times had released an exhaustive investigation showing that the strike had in fact killed 10 civilians, including an aid worker and seven children, that the US military had admitted the mission had gone tragically wrong.
Perhaps aware of the doubts that are sure to swirl around Zawahiri’s killing in the days to come, the White House said the Sherpur safe house where the drone attack occurred had been kept under observation for 36 hours after the attack and before Biden spoke to the nation. Officials said Zawahiri’s relatives were seen leaving the house under Haqqani taliban escort, establishing that they had survived the strike.