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How was the hunt for the leader of Al Qaeda that lasted decades

Intelligence agents made a crucial discovery this spring after tracking down Ayman al Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda, to Kabul, Afghanistan: he liked to read alone on the balcony from his safe house first thing in the morning.

Analysts are looking for that kind of information about life patterns, any habits that the CIA can take advantage of. In Al Zawahiri’s case, his long visits to the balcony gave the agency the opportunity to a clear missile shot That could prevent collateral damage.

The hunt for Al Zawahiri, one of the world’s most wanted terrorists, dates back to before the 9/11 attacks. The CIA continued to search for him as he rose to the top of al Qaeda following the death of Osama bin Laden and after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan last year. And one misstep during the chase, the recruitment of a double agent, led to one of the bloodiest days in the agency’s history.

Osama bin Laden sits next to Ayman al-Zawahiri, during an interview in November 2001 (Photo: Hamid Mir/Editor/Ausaf Newspaper for Daily Dawn/Handout via REUTERS)By: via REUTERS

Shortly after the United States left Kabul, the CIA intensified its efforts to find Al Zawahiri, convinced that he would try to return to Afghanistan. Senior officials had told the White House that they could maintain and create whistleblower networks within the country from a distance and that the United States would not be blind to terrorist threats at home. For the agency, finding Al Zawahiri would be key evidence of that claim.

This article is based on interviews with current and former US and foreign officials, with independent analysts who have studied this hunt that takes decades and with others briefed on the events leading up to the weekend attack. Most of them spoke on the condition that keep anonymity due to the confidentiality of the data used to find Al Zawahiri.

On the trail of Al Zawahiri

For years, al-Zawahiri was thought to be hiding out in the Pakistani border area, where many al Qaeda and Taliban leaders took refuge after the US invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001. Wanted in connection with 1998 embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenyaand the CIA had tracked down a network of people who intelligence officials said were supporting it.

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Analysis of that network intensified with the United States’ departure from Afghanistan last year and the belief by some intelligence officials that senior al Qaeda leaders would have the temptation to return.

The hunch turned out to be correct. The agency discovered that Al Zawahiri’s family had returned to a safe house in Kabul. Although the family tried to ensure that they were not being watched and that Al Zawahiri’s location would be kept secret, it was not long before intelligence agencies learned that he had also returned to Afghanistan.

Taliban fighters at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 31, 2021. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
Taliban fighters at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 31, 2021. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)By: NOW

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

The safe house was owned by a top aide to the Haqqani Network, a violent and hardened wing of the Taliban government, and was in an area controlled by the group. Senior Taliban leaders occasionally met at the house, but US officials don’t know how many knew the Haqqanis were hiding Al Zawahiri.

If some senior Taliban officials did not know that the Haqqanis had allowed Al Zawahiri to return, his assassination could drive a wedge between the groups, as stated by independent analysts and others briefed on the events.

“The Haqqanis have a long relationship with Al Qaeda dating back to the days of the Mujahideen,” explained Dan Hoffman, a former CIA official. “They provide Al Qaeda with a lot of tactical support what do you need”.

The misstep of the CIA: 7 officers killed

Once the safe house was located, the CIA followed the strategy it established during the hunt for Bin Laden. The agency built a model of the place and tried to learn everything about it.

Analysts ended up identifying Al Zawahiri as a figure who he stayed on the balcony reading, but he never left the house.

US officials quickly decided to attack it, but the location of the house posed problems. He 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 type of special operations forces raid it would be very dangerouswhich would limit the US government’s options to carry out an attack.

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The search for Al Zawahiri was of enormous importance to the agency. Following the US invasion of Afghanistan, the CIA base in Khost province became the headquarters of a search group dedicated to tracking down both Bin Laden and Al Zawahiri. It was one of the leads developed by the CIA to follow Al Zawahiri that proved disastrous for agency officials at that base, Camp Chapman.

The CIA agents hoped that Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al Balawi, a Jordanian doctor and al Qaeda propagandist, would lead them to Al Zawahiri. He provided US officials information on Al Zawahiri’s health. He convinced them that the information about him was real, but in reality he was a double agent and on December 30, 2009, he showed up at Camp Chapman wearing a suicide vest. When it exploded, seven CIA officers were killed.

For many, the Khost attack intensified efforts to find Al Zawahiri. “To honor his legacy, you have to continue with the mission,” Hoffman said.

The CIA strategy: Al Zawahiri’s pattern of life

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 Zawahiri. After the meeting, the CIA and other intelligence agencies worked to better understand what they called Al Zawahiri’s pattern of life.

One of the key facts was that he was never seen leaving the house and only seemed to go out for air on an upper-floor balcony. He stayed on the balcony for long periods, which gave the CIA a good opportunity to target him.

The death of Al Aaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
The death of Al Aaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri

Al Zawahiri continued to work at the safe house, producing videos that were distributed to the Al Qaeda network.

A senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive decisions that led to the attack, said the intelligence presented to the White House had been scrutinized repeatedly, including by a team of independent analysts tasked with identify everyone who stayed in the house of security.

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As attack options developed, intelligence officials examined what type of missile could be fired at Al Zawahiri without causing significant damage to the safe house or the surrounding neighborhood. They finally settled on one type of Hellfire missile designed to kill a single person.

Joe Biden in the Situation Room

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

At that meeting, Biden asked about the possibility of collateral damage and prompted Burns to explain the steps agents had taken to find Al Zawahiri and confirm his information, as well as their plans to kill him.

Biden ordered a series of tests. The White House asked the National Counterterrorism Center to provide an independent assessment of the impact of the elimination of Al Zawahiri, both in Afghanistan and for the network around the world, revealed a senior intelligence official. The president also asked about possible risks to Mark R. Frerichs, an American hostage being held by the Haqqanis.

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

President Joe Biden is seen on multiple screens in the White House briefing room, during a nationally televised address announcing that a US airstrike in Afghanistan killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, in Washington, on Aug. 1, 2022. (Al Drago/The New York Times)
President Joe Biden is seen on multiple screens in the White House briefing room, during a nationally televised address announcing that a US airstrike in Afghanistan killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, in Washington, on Aug. 1, 2022. (Al Drago/The New York Times)By: AL DRAGO | NOW

The CIA plans provided for the use of its own drones. Because he was using his means, few Pentagon officials were involved in planning the attack and many top military officials learned shortly before the White House announcementsaid an official.

On July 25, Biden, satisfied with the plan, authorized the CIA to carry out the airstrike when the opportunity presented itself. On Sunday morning in Kabul, he carried it out. A drone, piloted by the CIA, found Al Zawahiri on his balcony. Agency agents fired two missiles, ending a hunt of more than two decades.

Taliban fighters at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 31, 2021. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

President Joe Biden is seen on multiple screens in the White House briefing room, during a nationally televised address announcing that a US airstrike in Afghanistan killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, in Washington, on Aug. 1, 2022. (Al Drago/The New York Times)

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