WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed in a U.S. strike in Afghanistan at the weekend, the biggest blow to the militant group since its founder Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011.
Zawahiri had been in hiding for years, and the operation to locate and kill him was the result of “carefully patient and persistent” work by the counterterrorism and intelligence community, a senior administration official told reporters.
Until the US announcement, Zawahiri had been variously rumored to be in Pakistan’s tribal area or inside Afghanistan.
On condition of anonymity, the official gave the following details about the operation:
* For years, the US government had been aware of a network it considered supported Zawahiri, and over the past year, following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, officials had been looking for indications of Al Qaeda’s presence in the country.
This year, officials identified Zawahiri’s family — his wife, daughter and her children — as having moved to a safe house in Kabul and then identified Zawahiri at the same location.
* Over the course of several months, intelligence officials became more confident that they had correctly identified Zawahiri at the Kabul safe house, and in early April began briefing senior administration officials. Jake Sullivan, national security adviser, then 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.
When Zawahiri arrived at the Kabul safe house, officials were unaware he was leaving it, and they identified him on the balcony — where he was eventually hit — on several occasions, the official said.
* Officials examined the construction and nature of the safe house and vetted its occupants to ensure the United States could safely 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 has called meetings with key advisers and cabinet members to review 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
Biden “asked detailed questions about what we knew and how we knew it” and carefully examined a model of the safe house the intelligence community had built and brought to the meeting.
He asked about lighting, weather, construction materials and other factors that could affect the success of the operation, the official said. The president also asked for analysis of the potential consequences of a strike in Kabul.
* A tight circle of senior interagency lawyers reviewed the intelligence reporting and confirmed that Zawahiri was a legitimate target based on his continued leadership of Al Qaeda.
On July 25, the president convened his key cabinet members and advisers to receive a final briefing and discuss how killing Zawahiri would affect US relations with the Taliban, among other things, the official said. After soliciting the views of others in the room, Biden authorized “a precisely tailored air strike” on the condition that it minimized the risk of civilian casualties.
* The attack was finally carried out at 21:48 ET (0148 GMT) on July 30 by a drone that fired so-called “hellfire” missiles.
(Writing by Michelle Price; Reporting by Eric Beech, Alex Alper, Idrees Ali and Jeff Mason; Editing by Stephen Coates)