WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed in a US attack in Afghanistan last weekend, the biggest blow to the militant group since its founder Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011.
Zawahiri had been in hiding for years, and the operation to locate and kill him was the result of “careful, patient and persistent” work by the counter-terrorism and intelligence community, a senior administration official told reporters.
Until the US announcement, Zawahiri was said to be in the tribal area of Pakistan or inside Afghanistan.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official provided the following details about the operation:
* For several years, the US government was aware of a network that he claimed was supporting Zawahiri, and in the past year, following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, officials were watching for indications of Al Qaeda’s presence in the country. country.
This year, officials identified that Zawahiri’s family – his wife, daughter and children – had moved to a shelter in Kabul and subsequently identified Zawahiri in the same location.
* Over the course of several months, intelligence officials became more confident they had correctly identified Zawahiri at the Kabul shelter and began informing senior administration officials in early April. Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor, later informed President Joe Biden.
“We were able to build a model of life through multiple independent sources of information to inform the operation,” the official said.
Once Zawahiri arrived at the Kabul shelter, officials were unaware of his leaving and identified him on the balcony – where he was eventually shot – on multiple occasions, the official said.
* Officials investigated the construction and nature of the shelter and monitored its occupants to ensure that the United States could safely conduct an operation to kill Zawahiri without threatening the structural integrity of the building and minimizing the risk to the civilians and Zawahiri’s family, the official said.
* In recent weeks, the president has convened meetings with key advisors and cabinet members to review information and evaluate the best course of action. On July 1, Biden was briefed on a proposed operation in the White House Situation Room by members of his cabinet, including CIA Director William Burns.
Biden “asked detailed questions about what we knew and how we knew” and closely examined a model of the shelter that the intelligence community had built and brought to the meeting.
He inquired about lighting, weather conditions, building materials and other factors that could affect the success of the operation, the official said. The president also asked for an analysis of the potential ramifications of a strike in Kabul.
* A small circle of lawyers among the agencies reviewed intelligence reports and confirmed that Zawahiri was a legitimate target based on his continued leadership of Al Qaeda.
On July 25, the president summoned his key cabinet members and advisers to receive a final briefing and discuss how the killing of Zawahiri would affect America’s relations with the Taliban, among other issues, the officer. After soliciting the views of others in the room, Biden authorized “a precise bespoke air strike” on the condition that it minimized the risk of civilian casualties.
* The attack was finally carried out at 9:48 pm ET (0148 GMT) on July 30th by a drone that launched so-called “Hellfire” missiles.
(Writing by Michelle Price; reporting by Eric Beech, Alex Alper, Idrees Ali, and Jeff Mason; editing by Stephen Coates)