Tracking, plan and extermination of a terrorist

Kabul.- Intelligence officials made a crucial discovery this spring after tracking Ayman al-Zawahri, the leader of Al Qaeda, to Kabul, Afghanistan: He liked to read alone on the balcony of his house early in the morning.

Analysts look for that kind of life-pattern intelligence, any habit that the CIA can exploit. In al-Zawahri’s case, his lengthy visits to the balcony gave the agency an opportunity to fire a missile, which could of course prevent collateral damage.

The search for al-Zawahri dates back to before the 9/11 attacks. The CIA continued to search for him as he rose to the top of al Qaeda after the death of Osama bin Laden and after the Taliban took over Afghanistan last year.

And one misstep during the manhunt, the recruitment of a double agent, led to one of the bloodiest days in the agency’s history.

Shortly after the United States left Kabul, the CIA stepped up its efforts to find al-Zawahri, convinced that he would try to return to Afghanistan.

Senior officials had told the White House that they could maintain and build networks of informants inside the country from afar, and that the United States would not be blind to terrorist threats there. For the agency, finding al-Zawahri would be key evidence of that claim.

For years, al-Zawahri was thought to be hiding in the border area of ​​Pakistan, where many al Qaeda and Taliban leaders took refuge after the US invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001.

He was wanted in connection with the 1998 embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, and the CIA had tracked down a network of people intelligence officials thought were supporting him.

Examination of that network intensified with the US exit from Afghanistan last year and the belief among some intelligence officials that al Qaeda’s top leaders would be tempted to return.

renewed effort

The hunch proved correct. The agency discovered that al-Zawahri’s family had returned to a safe house in Kabul. Although the family tried to ensure they were not being watched and to keep al-Zawahri’s location a secret, intelligence agencies soon learned that he, too, had returned to Afghanistan.

“There was a renewed effort to find out where he was,” said Mick Mulroy, a former CIA agent. “The only good thing that could have come from withdrawing from Afghanistan is that certain high-level terrorist figures would think it’s safe for them to be there.”

The safe house was owned by an aide to senior officials of the Haqqani network, a violent and battle-hardened wing of the Taliban government, and was in an area controlled by the group. Top Taliban leaders occasionally met at the house, but US officials don’t know how many knew the Haqqanis were hiding al-Zawahri.

If some senior Taliban officials did not know that the Haqqani had allowed al-Zawahri to return, his killing could drive a wedge between the groups, independent analysts and others briefed on the events said.

It is not clear why Al-Zawahri returned to Afghanistan. He had been making promotional and recruiting videos for a long time, and it might have been easier to produce them in Kabul. He may also have had better access to medical treatment.

No matter what the motive, his ties to the leaders of the Haqqani network led US intelligence officials to the safe house.

“The Haqqani have a very long relationship with Al Qaeda going back to the days of the Mujahideen,” said Dan Hoffman, a former CIA agent. “They provide al Qaeda with a lot of the tactical support that they need.”

Once the safe house was located, the CIA followed the playbook it wrote during the search for bin Laden. The agency built a model of the site and sought to learn everything about it.

Analysts eventually identified a figure who stayed on the balcony reading but never left the house as al-Zawahri.

US officials quickly decided to attack it, but the location of the house posed problems. It was in the Sherpur neighborhood of Kabul, an urban area of ​​closely spaced houses. A missile armed with a large explosive could damage nearby houses. And any kind of incursion by Special Operations forces would be prohibitively dangerous, limiting the options for the US government to carry out an attack.

The search for al-Zawahri was of great importance to the agency. After the US invasion of Afghanistan, the CIA base in Khost province became home to a group of targets dedicated to tracking down both bin Laden and al-Zawahri. It was one of the leads uncovered by the CIA to track down al-Zawahri that proved disastrous for the agency’s officers at that base, Camp Chapman.

CIA officials hoped that Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, a Jordanian doctor and al Qaeda propagandist, would lead them to al-Zawahri. He provided US officials with information about al-Zawahri’s health, convincing them that the intelligence on him was real. But he was actually a double agent, and on December 30, 2009, he showed up at Camp Chapman wearing a suicide vest. When he blew up, seven CIA agents were killed.

In 2012 and 2013, the CIA focused the hunt on the North Waziristan region of Pakistan. CIA analysts were sure they had found the small town where al-Zawahri was hiding. But intelligence agencies couldn’t find his home in the city of a dozen compounds, making a raid or drone strike impossible.

Still, the American hunt forced al-Zawahri to remain in Pakistan’s tribal areas, possibly limiting the effectiveness of his leadership within al Qaeda.

“Every time something related to bin Laden or Zawahri hit the intelligence channels, everyone stopped to pitch in and help out,” said Lisa Maddox, a former CIA official. “It was the CIA’s promise to the public: bring them to justice.” .

On April 1, senior intelligence officials briefed national security officials at the White House about the safe house and how they had tracked down al-Zawahri. After the meeting, the CIA and other intelligence agencies worked to learn more about what they called al-Zawahri’s pattern of life.

the opportunity arrives

A key insight was that he was never seen leaving the house and only seemed to get fresh air standing on a balcony on an upper floor. He was out on the balcony for extended periods, which gave the CIA a good opportunity to target him.

Al-Zawahri continued to work at the safe house, producing videos for distribution to the Qaeda network.

A senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive decisions leading up to the attack, said the intelligence presented to the White House had been scrutinized repeatedly, including by a team of independent analysts tasked with identifying all the who were staying at the house.

As options for a strike developed, intelligence officials examined what type of missile could be fired at al-Zawahri without causing significant damage to the safe house or the surrounding neighborhood. They eventually settled on a form of Hellfire missile designed to kill a single person.

William J. Burns, the CIA director, and other intelligence officials briefed President Biden on July 1, this time using the safe house model, the senior official said.

In that meeting, Biden asked about the possibility of collateral damage, urging Burns to explain how the officers found al-Zawahri and confirmed his information, and their plans to kill him.

Biden ordered a series of tests. The White House has asked the National Counterterrorism Center to provide an independent assessment of the impact of al-Zawahri’s removal, both in Afghanistan and on the network around the world, a senior intelligence official said. The president also asked about possible risks to Mark R. Frerichs, an American hostage held by the Haqqani.

In June and July, officials met several times in the Situation Room to discuss intelligence and examine possible ramifications.

On Sunday morning in Kabul, a CIA-piloted drone found al-Zawahri on his balcony. Agency agents fired two missiles, ending a manhunt of more than two decades.

From doctor to jihadist chief

Egyptian Al-Zawahri was born on June 19, 1951 into a wealthy family in a quiet, leafy suburb of Maadi, Cairo.

Highly religious from childhood, he was immersed in a violent sector of a revival of the Sunni branch of Islam that wanted to replace the governments of Egypt and other Arab nations with a strict interpretation of Islamic rule.

Al-Zawahri worked as an eye surgeon as a young adult, but he also wandered Central Asia and the Middle East, witnessing the Afghans’ war against Soviet invaders there, and met the young Saudi Osama bin Laden and other extremists. Arabs organizing to help Afghanistan drive out the Soviets.

Al-Zawahri spoke three languages: Arabic, English and French.

The gates of jihad opened for Ayman al-Zawahri when he was a young doctor in a Cairo clinic. One day a visitor arrived with a tempting offer: the opportunity to provide medical care to Islamic fighters fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

With that offer in 1980, al-Zawahri embarked on a three-decade life that would take him to the top of the world’s most feared terrorist group, Al Qaeda, after the death of Osama bin Laden.

The assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981 at the hands of a different Islamic Jihad cell landed him in prison for three years. In a brief, al-Zawahri said that he learned of the plot just hours before the assassination.

Upon his release in 1984, al-Zawahri returned to Afghanistan and joined Arab militants from across the Middle East who were fighting alongside the Afghans against the Soviets.

He allied himself with bin Laden and followed him to his new base in Sudan, and from there he led a regrouped faction of Islamic Jihad in a violent campaign of attacks aimed at overthrowing the US-allied Egyptian government.

The move failed. But al-Zawahri would bring to Al Qaeda the tactics he perfected in Islamic Jihad.

He promoted the use of suicide bombings, which would become al Qaeda’s hallmark.

In 2001, he co-led the attacks on the Trade World Center and the Pentagon, killing nearly 3,000 people and injuring 25,000. (With information from Associated Press)

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