How an early morning balcony visit made Al-Qaeda boss a target for US strike
Just after 6am on Sunday, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, was taking the air on the balcony of his home in Kabul’s leafy Sherpoor neighbourhood– an upscale district home to dignitaries and embassies.
By 6:18am he was dead, struck by a US “hellfire” missile in a meticulously planned “tailored” strike designed to spare the lives of his wife, daughter and her children also living in the building.
US intelligence officials said they had worked to build up a “pattern of life” of the 71-year-old al-Qaeda leader, who helped Osama Bin Laden plan the September 11 terror attacks, and were left with no doubt about his identity.
They had seen him on “multiple occasions, for sustained periods of time” on the balcony in what US President Joe Biden later called “clear and convincing” evidence it was the man US intelligence had sought for years.
“I authorised the precision strike that would remove him from the battlefield once and for all. This measure was carefully planned, rigorously, to minimise the risk of harm to other civilians,” Mr Biden said.
Sunday’s attack was the result of months of painstaking planning by US intelligence officials that began in earnest with a series of briefings to senior officials in April.
From there, a group of staff vetted intelligence and worked to devise a plan for President Biden to put into action. On July 1, when President Biden returned from a five-day European trip to meet with Nato and G7 leaders, he met aides in the Situation Room and was shown a small model of the home Al-Zawahiri had been tracked to.
The president lobbed questions to advisers, including CIA director William Burns, director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and National Counterterrorism Centre director Christy Abizaid, about “what we knew and how we knew it”.
He asked about what the house was built from, the lighting, the weather, who else lived there, the legality of a potential strike and the impact this could have on Mark Frerichs – An American man who has been in Taliban captivity for more than two years, and to Afghans who aided the US war efforts who remain in the country.
The consequences of getting such a strike wrong had been made plain a year ago when a US drone strike killed 10 family members including seven children.
Just over three weeks later, on July 25 and while isolating with Covid, he received a final briefing and signed off on the strike after unanimous recommendations from advisers. The earliest opportunity for it to be carried out came on Sunday, when Mr Biden was yet again isolated due to his “rebound” Covid-19 infection.
After it was carried out, US intelligence waited for 36 hours and watched the Taliban network restrict access to the house and relocate the family – a move interpreted as trying to conceal the fact they had harboured Al-Zawahiri.
A US official said no American personnel were on the ground supporting the attack and the Taliban were given no warning. It remains unclear where the drone was launched from.
A senior White House official said the successful killing was the result of “careful patient and persistent” work by the counter-terrorism and intelligence community.
The death of Al-Zawahiri is likely to lead to greater disarray within al-Qaeda than Bin Laden’s death as its unclear who his successor would be.
Born on June 19, 1951, he was the son of a family of doctors in Cairo and from an early age, was influenced by the by the radical writings of Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian Islamist who taught that Arab regimes were “infidel” and should be replaced by Islamic rule.
In the 70s he trained a surgeon and was an active militant – at one point even storing weapons in his private clinic, according to Associated Press. After the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat by Islamic Jihad militants he was arrested and served three years in prison where he turned more radical.
In 1980 he went to treat Islamic fighters battling Soviet forces in Afghanistan in a move that set him on a course to become the leader of al-Qaeda.
What he saw was “the training course preparing Muslim mujahedeen youth to launch their upcoming battle with the great power that would rule the world: America,” he wrote in a 2001 biography-cum-manifesto.
He is seen as the force behind helping turn the terror group into a franchise model that included a network of branches including in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, North Africa, Somalia and Asia
He plotted the September 11 terror attacks with Bin Laden and led the group after he went into hiding and his death. Experts believe he provided the on-the-ground experience and jihadist credentials bin Laden – who was from a wealthy Saudi family – lacked.
“Bin Laden always looked up to him,” said terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University. Al-Zawahiri “spent time in an Egyptian prison, he was tortured. He was a jihadi from the time he was a teenager.”
After Bin Laden was killed in a US raid on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, al-Qaeda proclaimed Al-Zawahiri its paramount leader less than two months later.