A senior administration official told reporters how the CIA identified and killed Al Qaeda chief Zawahiri at a Kabul safe house on July 30.
The biggest blow to the terrorist organization since the assassination of its founder Osama bin Laden in 2011 occurred over the weekend when Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed in an US strike in Afghanistan.
A senior administration official told reporters that Zawahiri had been hiding for years and that the operation to find and kill him was the result of “careful patient and persistent” work by the counter-terrorism and intelligence community.
Zawahiri had been thought to be in the tribal region of Pakistan or within Afghanistan prior to the US disclosure.
The officer, who spoke on the record under the condition of anonymity, gave the following information about the operation:
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For several years, the US government had been aware of a network that it assessed supported Zawahiri, and over the past year, following the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, officials had been watching for indications of Al Qaeda’s presence in the country.
This year, investigators found that Zawahiri’s family—his wife, his daughter, and her children moved to a safe home in Kabul, and they later found Zawahiri there as well.
Over several months, intelligence officials grew more confident that they had correctly identified Zawahiri at the Kabul safe house and in early April started briefing senior administration officials. Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor, subsequently briefed President Joe Biden.
“We were able to build a pattern of life through multiple independent sources of information to inform the operation,” the official said.
The official claimed that after Zawahiri entered the Kabul safe house, authorities were unaware of his departure and repeatedly recognized him on the balcony, where he was ultimately struck.
Officials investigated the construction and nature of the safe house and scrutinized its occupants to ensure the United States could confidently conduct an operation to kill Zawahiri without threatening the structural integrity of the building and minimizing the risk to civilians and Zawahiri’s family, the official said.
In recent weeks, the president convened meetings with key advisors and Cabinet members to scrutinize the intelligence and evaluate the best course of action. On July 1, Biden was briefed on a proposed operation in the White House Situation Room by members of his cabinet including CIA Director William Burns
In addition to extensively examining a model of the safe house the intelligence community had developed and brought to the meeting, Biden “asked detailed questions about what we knew and how we knew it.”
The official reported that he inquired about the lighting, the climate, the construction materials, and other elements that might have an impact on the operation’s success. The president also asked for a study of the potential effects of an attack on Kabul.
A tight circle of senior inter-agency lawyers examined the intelligence reporting and confirmed that Zawahiri was a lawful target based on his continuing leadership of Al Qaeda.
The president met with his key Cabinet members and advisors on July 25 to receive a final briefing and go through many topics, including how murdering Zawahiri would influence the United States’ relationship with the Taliban, the official said. Biden sought input from others in the room before approving “a precise tailored air strike” with the proviso that the risk of civilian casualties be kept to a minimum.
The strike was ultimately carried out at 9:48 p.m. ET (0148 GMT) on July 30 by a drone firing so-called “hellfire” missiles.