How the CIA tracked down Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda

WASHINGTON. This spring, intelligence officers made an important discovery when they tracked down al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul, Afghanistan: he liked to read alone on the balcony of his safe house early in the morning.

Analysts are looking for this kind of intelligence lifestyle, any habit that the CIA can exploit. In al-Zawahiri’s case, his lengthy visits to the balcony gave the agency a clear shot that could avoid collateral damage.

The hunt for al-Zawahiri, one of the most wanted terrorists in the world, began even before 1 September. 11 attacks. The CIA continued searching for him as he rose to the top of al-Qaeda after the death of Osama bin Laden and after the Taliban took over Afghanistan last year. And a misstep during the chase, recruiting a double agent, led to one of the bloodiest days in agency history.

Shortly after the United States left Kabul, the CIA stepped up its efforts to find al-Zawahiri, convinced that he would attempt to return to Afghanistan. Senior officials have told the White House that they will be able to maintain and build information networks inside the country from afar, and that the United States will not turn a blind eye to terrorist threats there. For the agency, finding al-Zawahiri would be a key test of that claim.

This article is based on interviews with current and former US and other officials, independent analysts who have studied years of hunting, and others briefed on the events leading up to the weekend strike. Most spoke on condition of anonymity due to the use of classified intelligence to search for al-Zawahiri.

For years, al-Zawahiri was believed to be hiding in the Pakistani border zone, where many Qaeda and Taliban leaders had taken refuge after the US invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001. He was wanted in connection with the 1998 Tanzania and Kenya embassy bombings, and the CIA tracked down a network of people that intelligence officials believed were supporting him.

Research into this network has intensified with US withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, as well as the belief by some intelligence officials that al-Qaeda’s top leaders would be tempted to return.

The guess turned out to be correct. The agency found that the al-Zawahiri family had returned to a safe house in Kabul. Although the family tried to ensure they were not followed and to keep al-Zawahiri’s whereabouts a secret, intelligence agencies soon learned that he, too, had returned to Afghanistan.

“There have been renewed efforts to find out where he was,” said Mick Mulroy, a former CIA officer. “The only good thing that could come out of Afghanistan is that some high-ranking terrorist figures would decide it’s safe for them to be there.”

The hideout was owned by an aide to senior officials in the Haqqani network, the battle-hardened and brutal wing of the Taliban government, and it was in an area controlled by the group. Senior Taliban leaders met at the house from time to time, but US officials do not know how many of them knew that the Haqqanis were harboring 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 factions, independent analysts and others briefed on the events say.

It is unclear why al-Zawahiri returned to Afghanistan. He had made recruiting and promotional videos a long time ago, and perhaps it was easier to film them in Kabul. He may also have had better access to medical care.

Whatever the reason, his connections to Haqqani network leaders led US intelligence officials to the safe house.

“Haqqani has a very long relationship with al-Qaeda, going back to the days of the Mujahideen,” said Dan Hoffman, a former CIA officer. “They’re giving al-Qaeda a lot of the tactical support they need.”

As soon as the safe house was discovered, the CIA followed the script it had written during the hunt for bin Laden. The agency built a model of the site and wanted to know everything about it.

Analysts eventually identified the figure, who lingered on the balcony and read but never left the house, as al-Zawahiri.

U.S. officials quickly decided to target him, but the location of the house posed problems. This was in the Sherpur district of Kabul, an urban area with closely spaced houses. A rocket with a large explosive can damage nearby houses. And any intervention by special operations forces would be prohibitively dangerous, limiting the ability of the US government to strike.

The search for al-Zawahiri was of great importance to the agency. After the US invasion of Afghanistan, the CIA base in Khost province became home to a task force tracking both bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. It was one of the leads developed by the CIA to track al-Zawahiri that proved disastrous for agency officers at Camp Chapman.

The CIA officers hoped Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, a Jordanian doctor and al-Qaeda propagandist, will lead them to al-Zawahiri. He provided US officials with information about al-Zawahiri’s health, convincing them that his intelligence was real. But in fact he was a double agent, and on December 30, 2009, he showed up at Camp Chapman wearing a suicide vest. The explosion killed seven CIA officers.

For many, the Khosta attack has stepped up efforts to find al-Zawahiri. “To honor their legacy, you continue the mission,” he said. Hoffman said.

In 2012 and 2013, the CIA focused its hunt on the Pakistani region of North Waziristan. CIA analysts were sure they had found the small village where al-Zawahiri was hiding. But the secret services could not find his house, in the city there were about a dozen connections, which made a raid or a drone strike impossible.

However, the US hunt forced al-Zawahiri to remain in the tribal areas of Pakistan, which may have limited the effectiveness of his leadership in al-Qaeda.

“Every time anything bin Laden or Zawahiri gets through the intelligence channels, everyone stops to intervene and help,” said Lisa Maddox, a former CIA analyst. “That was the CIA’s promise to the public: hold them accountable.”

On April 1, top intelligence officials briefed national security officials at the White House about the safe house and how they tracked down al-Zawahiri. After the meeting, the CIA and other intelligence agencies worked to learn more about what they called al-Zawahiri’s way of life.

One of the key points was that he was never seen leaving the house and seemed to breathe fresh air only by standing on the balcony on the top floor. He remained on the balcony for a long time, which gave the CIA a good chance to target him.

Al-Zawahiri continued to work at the safe house, producing videos for distribution on the Qaeda network.

A senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the major decisions leading up to the strike, said the intelligence provided to the White House was verified multiple times, including by a panel of independent analysts tasked with identifying everyone who stayed at the house. safe house.

As strike options were developed, intelligence officials studied what kind of missile could be fired at al-Zawahiri without causing serious damage to the safe house or the surrounding area. They ultimately settled on a form of Hellfire missile designed to kill a single person.

On July 1, CIA Director William J. Burns and other intelligence officials briefed President Biden, this time with a model safe house, according to a senior official.

At that meeting, Mr. Biden asked about the possibility of collateral damage, pushing Mr. Burns to tell him how the officers found al-Zawahiri and confirmed his information, as well as their plans to kill him.

mr. Biden ordered a series of tests. The White House has asked the National Counterterrorism Center for an independent assessment of the impact of al-Zawahiri’s removal on both Afghanistan and the global network, a senior intelligence official said. The president also asked about the possible risks to Mark R. Frerichs, the American hostage being held by Haqqani.

In June and July, officials met several times in the Operations Room to discuss intelligence and explore possible implications.

The plans of the CIA included the use of their own drones. Due to his use of his own assets, several Pentagon officials were involved in planning the strike, the source said, and many high-ranking military officials only learned of it shortly before the White House announcement.

On July 25, Mr. Biden, satisfied with the plan, authorized the CIA to launch an airstrike when the opportunity presented itself. On a Sunday morning in Kabul, it was. A CIA drone spotted al-Zawahiri on his balcony. Agency operatives fired a missile, ending more than twenty years of hunting.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Adam Goldman as well as Michael Crowley made a report.