The US drone strike that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri on his balcony in Kabul over the weekend was the product of months of top-secret planning by President Biden and a select circle of his advisers. principals, who built a small-scale model of The Zawahiri Hideaway for Biden to examine inside the White House Situation Room as he considered his options.
Details of the strike and its planning were released by a senior administration official as Biden prepared to announce the mission on Monday.
Here are the key things to know:
- The president was first informed in April that US intelligence had placed Zawahiri in a safe house in Kabul. 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 children through multiple intelligence feeds.
- The women used terrorist “devices” officials believed were designed to prevent anyone from following them to Zawahiri’s location in a Kabul neighborhood. Zawahiri himself did not leave after arriving this year.
- As the months passed, US officials began to establish patterns in the house – including Zawahiri periodically emerging on the house balcony for extended periods.
- As officials continued to monitor its activities, an effort began in secret to analyze the building’s construction and structure, with the goal of developing an operation to take down the world’s #1 terrorist target without compromising structural integrity. of the building.
- Averting civilian deaths, including members of Zawahiri’s family who lived in the building, was the top priority for Biden and his team members. Independent analyzes from across government were involved in identifying the other occupants of the house.
- The building’s location in downtown Kabul presented its own challenges as it was surrounded by a residential area. Officials were aware that their planning and information had to be “rock-solid” before presenting options to Biden. And they were very suspicious of leaks; only a “very small and restricted group” of dispersed key agencies were informed of the plans being drawn up.
- As May and June progressed, Biden was kept abreast of developments. On July 1, he assembled key national security officials in the White House Situation Room to receive a briefing on a proposed operation. CIA Director Bill Burns, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his deputy Jon Finer, and Homeland Security Advisor Liz Sherwood Randall were seated around the table.
On Biden’s role in the mission: Biden was “deeply engaged in the briefing and immersed in the intelligence,” a senior official said. He asked “detailed questions about what we knew and how we knew it.”
Of particular interest was a scale model of Zawahiri’s house that intelligence officials had built and brought to the White House for the president to review. Biden asked how the house could be lit by the sun, its construction materials and how the weather could affect any operation, the official said.
“He was particularly keen to ensure that all steps had been taken to ensure that the operation would minimize this risk” of civilian casualties, according to the official.
Biden asked his team for more information about the plans for the building and how a strike might affect it. He flew to Camp David later that afternoon.
Her team remained on site, meeting several times in the crisis room over the following weeks to complete their planning, answer questions from the president and ensure they took all necessary steps to minimize risk.
A parallel effort by senior administration lawyers was underway to review information related to Zawahiri and establish the legal basis for the operation.
On July 25 – while self-isolating with Covid-19 in the White House residence – Biden assembled his team for a final briefing. He again insisted on a “granular level”, the official said, asking about any additional options that could minimize civilian casualties.
He asked about the layout of the house – where rooms were placed behind windows and doors on the third floor – and what potential impact the strike would have.
And he went around his team, asking the opinion of each official.
In the end, he authorized a “precise and tailored airstrike” to eliminate the target.
Five days later, two Hellfire missiles were fired at the balcony of the Kabul hideout. “Multiple intelligence streams” confirmed that Zawahiri had been killed.
His family members, who were in other parts of the house, were not injured, the official said.
Biden, still in solitary confinement in the White House residence with a rebound in Covid infection, was briefed on the start and end of the operation.