The US drone strike that killed al-Zawahiri on his balcony in central Kabul was the result of months of secret planning by Biden and his inner circle of top advisers. Among the products was a small-scale model of al-Zawahiri’s safe house, built by intelligence officials and placed inside the White House Situation Room for inspection as Biden discussed his options.
For Biden, the prospect of taking down the world’s most-wanted terrorist, the mastermind behind the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, posed the same risk of accidentally killing civilians as the U.S. drone strike in the Afghan capital 11 months earlier. A chaotic US military withdrawal from the country.
Details of the attack and its planning were briefed by a senior administration official on Monday as Biden prepared to announce the mission.
In the months-long effort to plan this weekend’s attack, Biden repeatedly instructed his officials to ensure that civilians, including members of al-Zawahiri’s family, were not killed. According to the White House, no one died.
Biden, who had to self-isolate due to his Covid-19 infection during the final deliberations and acknowledgment of the attack, came out on the White House balcony on Monday to declare victory. It was a triumphant moment for a president beset by domestic political problems dating back to the deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan a year ago.
“The people of the world no longer need to fear a deadly and determined killer. The United States continues to demonstrate our resolve and ability to defend the American people against those who seek to persecute them,” Biden said from the Blue Room. White House.
The president was first informed in April of al-Zawahiri’s location in a safe house in Kabul by US intelligence. US officials had been aware for months of a network supporting the terrorist leader in the Afghan capital and had identified his wife, daughter and sons through multiple intelligence streams.
The women used terrorist “gadgets” designed to prevent anyone from following them to al-Zawahiri’s residence in a Kabul neighborhood. Al-Zawahiri has not left the base since his arrival this year.
As the months passed, U.S. officials began to establish patterns in the home, including al-Zawahiri’s occasional appearances on the home’s balcony for extended periods of time.
As authorities continued to monitor their activities, a top-secret effort began to examine the building’s construction and structure, with the aim of developing a strategy to bring down the world’s No. 1 terror target without compromising the building’s structural integrity.
The most important thing for Biden and his team is to prevent civilian casualties, including members of al-Zawahiri’s family, who lived in the building. Independent investigators from across the government are working to identify other residents of the home.
The building’s location in the heart of Kabul presented its own challenges.
Surrounded by a residential area, officials kept in mind that their planning and information needed to be “solid” before presenting any options to Biden. They were very careful about leaks: only a “very small and select group” among a scattering of key agencies was told about the planned projects.
Biden was also concerned about how it could affect US efforts to return Mark Frerichs, a US citizen who was taken hostage in Afghanistan two years ago. A senior administration official said that with continued efforts to relocate Afghans who helped the U.S. during the war, Biden has pushed his team to minimize the risks of those efforts.
“Moving forward with the Taliban, we will continue to hold them accountable for their actions. In the meantime, we have made it clear to them that we continue to believe they will not take action that would harm Mark Frerich. We will continue to work to secure his release after his release.” Prolonged detention and incarceration,” the official said.
As May and June progressed, Biden picked up on developments. On July 1, he convened key national security officials in the White House Situation Room and briefed them on a proposed course of action. CIA Director Bill Burns; Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haynes; National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and his deputy John Feiner and National Security Adviser Liz Sherwood Randall sat around the table.
A senior official said Biden was “deeply involved in the briefing and immersed in intelligence.” He asked “extensive questions about what we know and how we know it.”
Of particular note was the fact that intelligence officials had built a scale model of al-Zawahiri’s house and brought it to the White House for the president to inspect. Biden questioned how the sun could illuminate the house, its construction materials and how the weather would affect any activities, the official said.
“He was particularly focused on making sure that all necessary steps were taken to ensure that the operation mitigated that risk,” according to the official.
Biden asked his team for plans for the building and more information about how an attack might affect it. That day he went to Camp David.
His team remained in Washington, meeting several times in the situation room over the next few weeks to finalize their planning, answer the president’s questions and make sure they had taken all the contingencies to minimize risks.
A parallel effort was made by senior administration lawyers to examine intelligence related to al-Zawahiri and establish a legal basis for action.
On July 25, while in White House quarantine with Covid-19, Biden reconvened his team for a final briefing. He was pushed back to a “minimum level” as the officer asked about additional options that could reduce civilian casualties.
He asked about the layout of the house, where rooms are located behind windows and doors on the third floor, and what effects an attack would have.
And he asked the opinion of each officer in his group.
Ultimately, he authorized a “precisely designed air strike” to complete the objective.
Five days later, two Hellfire missiles were fired at the balcony of a safe house in Kabul at 6:18 a.m. local time. “Multiple streams of intelligence” confirmed al-Zawahiri was dead.
His family members who were in other parts of the house were not injured, the official said.
Biden, who is again in isolation at the White House residence with Covid-19, was told when the surgery began and when it was completed.
CNN’s MJ Lee contributed to this report.
“Wannabe web geek. Alcohol expert. Certified introvert. Zombie evangelist. Twitter trailblazer. Communicator. Incurable tv scholar.”