lIn the end, one of the oldest mistakes in the fugitive’s handbook apparently made for Ayman al-Zawahiri, the top al-Qaeda leader who was killed by a drone strike Sunday morning, according to US intelligence: He developed a habit.
The co-planner of the 2001 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington had developed a taste for sitting outside on the balcony of his hiding place in Sherpur, a prosperous diplomatic enclave of Kabul. He became especially fond of going out onto 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 regular behavior that intelligence agents, presumably the CIA, were able to put together what they called “a pattern of life” of the target. That, in turn, allowed them to launch what the White House called a “tailor-made airstrike” with two Hellfire missiles fired from a Reaper drone alleged to have hit the balcony, with Zawahiri on them. , at 6:18 a.m. on Sunday.
It was the culmination of a decades-long hunt for the Egyptian surgeon who had a $25 million bounty on his head by the time he was killed. Zawahiri, 71, was blamed not only for his part as Bin Laden’s second-in-command before 9/11, which killed nearly 3,000, but also for several other of Al-Qaeda’s deadliest attacks, including the suicide bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000, killing 17 American sailors.
The mission to go after the al-Qaida leader was activated in early April, US officials said, as intelligence sources picked up signals that Zawahiri and his family had left their mountainside hideouts and moved to Kabul. After the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan last August, and with the support of the Haqqani Taliban network, Zawahiri and his wife, along with their daughter and grandchildren, had moved to the Sherpur house.
In their account of the events, US officials sought to emphasize that the mission was conducted with care and precision, according to Joe Biden’s instructions, to avoid civilian casualties. and US officials said no one else was killed or injured in the attack.
Social media images of the attack suggested using a modified Hellfire called the R9X with six blades to damage targets, sources familiar with the weapon told Reuters. They caused surprisingly little off-target damage, suggesting they may be a secret-shrouded version of the missile used by the US to prevent non-combatant casualties.
The US president was first notified of Zawahiri’s whereabouts in April, and over the next two months a close-knit group of officials delved into intelligence and devised a plan. A scale model of the Sherpur house was built, showing the balcony where the leader of Al-Qaeda liked to sit. As discussions about a possible strike intensified, the model was brought into the White House situation room on July 1 for Biden to see for himself.
The president “examined the model of al-Zawahiri’s house that the intelligence community had built and brought to the White House situation room for briefings on the matter,” a senior government official told reporters.
The White House further claimed to support its argument that the attack was lawful, error-free and limited to only Zawahiri with a loss of life. Officials said engineers were called in to analyze the safe house and assess what would happen to it structurally after a drone strike.
Lawyers were similarly consulted about whether the attack was legal. They said so, given the target’s prominent role as the leader of a terrorist group.
Biden, now quarantined with Covid, was given a final briefing on July 25 and gave the green light. 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 hiding place in Abbottabad, Pakistan. .
On Monday night, Biden stood on his private balcony—this one in the White House with the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial as the backdrop—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 harm to other citizens.”
Biden’s insistence that no one but the al-Qaeda leader be killed in the attack has been reinforced repeatedly by US officials. The White House story was that Zawahiri was neatly knocked out by the application of modern technological warfare.
Skepticism remains, despite the protests. Over the years, drone strikes have often proved anything but precise.
In August last year, such a US drone strike in Kabul was initially hailed by the Pentagon as a successful mission to take out a potential terrorist bomber planning an attack on the city’s airport. It was only after the New York Times published an exhaustive investigation that the strike had in fact killed ten civilians, including an aid worker and seven children, that the US military admitted that the mission had gone tragically wrong.
Perhaps mindful of the doubts that will surely swirl around Zawahiri’s assassination in the coming days, the White House said the Sherpur safe house where the drone attack took place had been under surveillance for 36 hours after the attack and before Biden met with the nation. Officials said Zawahiri’s relatives had been seen leaving the house escorted by the Taliban from Haqqani, demonstrating that they had survived the strike.