After a deadly attack in 2009, the CIA’s hunt for Zawahiri got personal

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It was one of the darkest days in CIA history: seven agents killed after being lured by a rogue informant into a death trap. In the years since, memories of the 2009 disaster in eastern Afghanistan have helped animate the intelligence agency’s global search for an elusive terrorist who may have played a key role in the officers’ deaths. .

This terrorist was Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al-Qaeda killed on Saturday in a strike carried out by the CIA. Nothing in official US statements describes Zawahiri’s death as a reward for US losses in Khost, Afghanistan some 12 years earlier. But many former and current intelligence officers say that is exactly how they felt.

The CIA, as is standard practice, has not publicly acknowledged any part in the firing of the missile that hit Zawahiri as he stood on his balcony in an apartment building in Kabul, the Afghan capital. But since Monday, confirmation of the death of the 71-year-old Egyptian sparked an emotional reaction from agency headquarters in Langley, Va., as well as from former colleagues, friends and family members of those killed or injured in 2009.

“It’s an incredibly personal moment,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA operations division official who served with several of the agency’s five men and two women killed at Camp Chapman, a CIA base on the outskirts of Khost from which the agency conducted clandestine missions against al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. In addition to the seven CIA agents, a senior Jordanian intelligence officer and an Afghan driver were also killed.

Polymeropoulos described the deaths at Camp Chapman as “the starkest example of the tragic costs of counterterrorism.”

Many current and former CIA officials marked the news of Zawahiri’s death with social media posts honoring the CIA officers and security team officials who died in the Khost attack, the deadliest against the CIA since eight employees were killed in a bombing at the US Embassy. in Beirut in 1983.

“Just remember. They are heroes,” said former CIA director and retired general Michael N. Hayden. wrote in a Twitter post. In an interview, Hayden recalled working with two of the slain officers, Khost base chief Jennifer Matthews and Elizabeth Hanson, and learning of their deaths at CIA headquarters on the day of the attack.

“I got out in my car and cried,” Hayden said.

CIA Director William J. Burns, in response to a question from The Washington Post, did not comment on the details of the operation against Zawahiri, but said the events were “deeply personal to the CIA”.

Zawahiri appeared on his balcony. The CIA was ready to kill him.

“In the hunt for Ayman al-Zawahiri, a brutal attack claimed the lives of seven CIA officers in Khost in 2009,” Burns said. “While terrorism remains a very real challenge, Zawahiri’s removal lessens that threat and offers a measure of justice.”

Zawahiri’s role in the surprisingly complex al-Qaeda operation against the CIA base was chronicled in a book 2011 and also described in articles and essays on the attack. The key figure was a Jordanian national, Humam al-Balawi, a doctor who got into trouble in his home country for posting pro-al-Qaeda messages on social media. After being interrogated by Jordanian intelligence services, he was persuaded to become a counter-terrorism informant. Ultimately, Balawi agreed to travel to Pakistan to gather information that could help the CIA track down Osama bin Laden and other senior al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders.

After disappearing for months, Balawi resurfaced in late 2009 with a startling claim that he had made high-level contacts within the community of al-Qaeda militants hiding in the lawless tribal region along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

As evidence, Balawi began providing evidence of his interactions – including cellphone videos of senior al-Qaeda leaders – to his Jordanian handlers, who passed the information to the CIA. Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate regularly works with its American counterparts to track and thwart terrorist operations around the world, and the two countries have spoken closely on the Balawi case.

In late December 2009, the CIA was eager to meet the Jordanian spy, sensing a potential breakthrough in the agency’s long dormant search for bin Laden and other terrorist leaders behind the September 11, 2001 attacks. With apparent reluctance, Balawi agreed to a meeting at the CIA base in Khost. Then, in a gesture that assures him of an enthusiastic welcome from the Americans, he dangles a new particularly enticing detail: the doctor treats Zawahiri, then No. 2 in al-Qaeda.

Balawi shared murky details about Zawahiri’s physical condition, including his various chronic illnesses and his scars from years of torture in Egyptian prisons. The details matched what the CIA already knew about Zawahiri and seemed to confirm that Balawi was indeed in close contact with the al-Qaeda deputy.

The meeting was scheduled for December 30, 2009, and many CIA counterterrorism experts planned to attend. Balawi arrived by car and, due to the extreme sensitivity surrounding the meeting, the CIA postponed any physical search of the informant until he was well inside the agency compound. .

Balawi had indeed been on a mission, but his allegiance was to al-Qaeda, not Jordan or the CIA. Under his cloak, he hid a bomb composed of powerful C4 explosives. After approaching a few meters from the CIA team, he detonated the device.

The attack led to a thorough investigation and led to numerous operational changes, including stronger counterintelligence safeguards. Agency officials were unable to determine the extent of Zawahiri’s involvement in the planning of the 2009 attack, but at the very least he allowed himself to be lured into a sophisticated operation. that allowed a suicide bomber to break into an ultra-secure and top-secret CIA facility, current and former officials said.

Zawahiri’s path to a global terrorist leader

This is why many in the CIA saw Zawahiri’s death as justice served, after years of waiting. On Tuesday, a printed copy of an article from the Washington Post was placed at the grave of Matthews, the Khost base leader killed in 2009. “US kills al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in of a drone strike in Kabul,” read the headline.

The photo was featured in a Twitter post on Tuesday by Kristin Wooda former CIA officer who worked with Matthews.

“Rest in peace sister,” the tweet read.

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