Before giving the order to kill Ayman al-Zawahiri, President Joe Biden wanted to understand intimately where the leader of Al-Qaeda was hiding.
The US drone strike that killed Zawahiri on his balcony in downtown Kabul was the product of months of top-secret planning by Biden and a select circle of his top advisers. Among the preparations was a small-scale model of Zawahiri’s safe house, built by intelligence officials and placed inside the White House Situation Room for Biden to examine as he debated his options.
For Biden, the opportunity to eliminate the world’s most wanted terrorist, one of the masterminds of the September 11, 2001 attacks, carried the risk of accidentally killing civilians in the Afghan capital – just like a US drone strike l did 11 months ago during the chaotic withdrawal of the US military from the country.
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Details of the strike and its planning were released by a senior administration official as Biden prepared to announce the mission on Monday.
Throughout months of efforts to plan for this weekend’s strike, Biden has repeatedly instructed his officials to ensure that civilians – including members of Zawahiri’s family – are not killed. None were, according to the White House.
Biden, who was self-isolating due to a Covid-19 infection during final deliberations and strike authorization, emerged to proclaim success from a White House balcony on Monday. It was a moment of victory for a president who has been beleaguered by domestic political unrest that dates back to the deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan a year ago.
“People around the world no longer need to fear the vicious and determined killer. The United States continues to demonstrate our resolve and ability to defend the American people against those who seek to harm us,” Biden said. from the balcony of the Blue Room of the White House.
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.
Over the months, 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 construction and structure of the building, with the goal of developing an operation to eliminate the world’s No. 1 terrorist target without compromising structural integrity. of the building.
Avoiding civilian deaths, including members of Zawahiri’s family who lived in the building, was the top priority for Biden and his team members. Independent analysts from across government were involved in identifying the other occupants of the house.
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The building’s location in downtown Kabul presented its own challenges.
Surrounded by a residential neighborhood, officials were aware that their planning and information had to be “rock-solid” before presenting options to Biden. And they were very wary of leaks – only a “very small and select group” in a scattering of key agencies were told about the plans being made.
Biden was also concerned about how it could affect US efforts to secure the return of Mark Frerichs, a US citizen taken hostage in Afghanistan more than two years ago. A senior administration official said Biden had pressed his team to mitigate risk for those efforts, as well as ongoing attempts to relocate Afghans who helped the United States during the war.
“Going forward with the Taliban, we will continue to hold them accountable for their actions. And we made it clear to them in the days that followed that we also expected them to take no action that would harm Mark Frerichs, as we were involved in efforts to secure his release after his long detention and his captivity,” the official said.
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.
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.
His 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 had taken all steps to minimize risk.
A parallel effort by senior administration lawyers was underway to review intelligence related to Zawahiri and establish the legal basis for the operation.
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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 effect 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 air strike” to eliminate the target.
Five days later, two Hellfire missiles were fired at the balcony of the Kabul safe house at 6:18 a.m. local time. National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby told CNN’s Brianna Keilar on “New Day” that the United States had “visual confirmation” as well as confirmation “from other sources and methods. “, but not DNA confirmation, that the strike had hit its target. .
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 of Covid infection, was briefed on the start and end of the operation.