WASHINGTON — Intelligence officers made an important discovery this spring after monitoring Ayman al-Zawahri, the chief of Al Qaeda, to Kabul, Afghanistan: He favored to learn alone on the balcony of his secure home early in the morning.
Analysts seek for that sort of pattern-of-life intelligence, any behavior the C.I.A. can exploit. In al-Zawahri’s case, his lengthy balcony visits gave the company a possibility for a transparent missile shot that would keep away from collateral injury.
The hunt for al-Zawahri, one of the world’s most wished terrorists, stretches again to earlier than the Sept. 11 assaults. The C.I.A. continued to seek for him as he rose to the prime of Al Qaeda after the dying of Osama bin Laden and after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan final 12 months. And a misstep throughout the chase, the recruitment of a double agent, led to at least one of the bloodiest days in the company’s historical past.
Soon after the United States left Kabul, the C.I.A. sharpened its efforts to search out al-Zawahri, satisfied he would attempt to return to Afghanistan. Senior officers had informed the White House they’d be capable of preserve and construct informant networks inside the nation from afar, and that the United States wouldn’t be blind to terrorism threats there. For the company, discovering al-Zawahri could be a key take a look at of that assertion.
This article relies on interviews with present and former American and different officers, impartial analysts who’ve studied the decades-long hunt and others briefed on the occasions main as much as the weekend strike. Most spoke on the situation of anonymity as a result of of the delicate intelligence used to search out al-Zawahri.
For years al-Zawahri was regarded as hiding in the border space of Pakistan, the place many Qaeda and Taliban leaders took refuge after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001. He was wished in reference to the 1998 embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, and the C.I.A. had tracked a community of individuals who intelligence officers thought supported him.
The examination of that community intensified with the U.S. exit from Afghanistan final 12 months and a perception amongst some intelligence officers that senior leaders of Al Qaeda could be tempted to return.
The hunch proved proper. The company came upon that al-Zawahri’s household had returned to a secure home in Kabul. Though the household tried to make sure they weren’t being watched and to maintain al-Zawahri’s location secret, intelligence businesses quickly realized he too had returned to Afghanistan.
“There was a renewed effort to figure out where he was,” stated Mick Mulroy, a former C.I.A. officer. “The one good thing that might have come out of withdrawing from Afghanistan is that certain high-level terrorist figures would then think it is safe for them to be there.”
The secure home was owned by an aide to senior officers in the Haqqani community, a battle-hardened and violent wing of the Taliban authorities, and it was in an space managed by the group. Senior Taliban leaders sometimes met at the home, however American officers have no idea what number of knew that the Haqqanis had been hiding al-Zawahri.
If some senior Taliban officers didn’t know that the Haqqanis had allowed al-Zawahri to return, his killing may drive a wedge between the teams, impartial analysts and others briefed on the occasions stated.
It shouldn’t be clear why Al-Zawahri moved again to Afghanistan. He had lengthy made recruiting and promotional movies, and it might have been simpler to provide them in Kabul. He additionally might have had higher entry to medical remedy.
No matter what the purpose, his ties to leaders of the Haqqani community led U.S. intelligence officers to the secure home.
“The Haqqanis have a very long relationship with Al Qaeda going back to the mujahedeen days,” stated Dan Hoffman, a former C.I.A. officer. “They provide Al Qaeda with a lot of tactical support that they need.”
Once the secure home was positioned, the C.I.A. adopted the playbook it wrote throughout the hunt for Bin Laden. The company constructed a mannequin of the web site and sought to study every part about it.
Analysts ultimately recognized a determine who lingered on the balcony studying, however by no means left the home, as al-Zawahri.
U.S. officers rapidly determined to focus on him, however the location of the home posed issues. It was in the Sherpur neighborhood of Kabul, an city space of carefully spaced homes. A missile armed with a big explosive may injury close by properties. And any kind of incursion by Special Operation forces could be prohibitively harmful, limiting the choices for the U.S. authorities to conduct a strike.
The seek for al-Zawahri carried large significance for the company. After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the C.I.A. base in Khost Province turned residence to a concentrating on group devoted to monitoring each Bin Laden and al-Zawahri. It was one of the leads developed by the C.I.A. to trace al-Zawahri that proved disastrous for the company’s officers at that base, Camp Chapman.
C.I.A. officers hoped Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, a Jordanian physician and propagandist for Al Qaeda, would cause them to al-Zawahri. He supplied American officers with details about al-Zawahri’s well being, convincing them his intelligence was actual. But he was in reality a double agent, and on Dec. 30, 2009, he confirmed up at Camp Chapman with a suicide vest. When it exploded, seven C.I.A. officers had been killed.
For many, the Khost assault intensified efforts to search out al-Zawahri. “To honor their legacy, you carry on with the mission,” Mr. Hoffman stated.
In 2012 and 2013, the C.I.A. centered the hunt on Pakistan’s North Waziristan area. C.I.A. analysts had been assured they’d discovered the small village the place al-Zawahri was hiding. But intelligence businesses couldn’t discover his home in the city of a few dozen compounds, making a raid or drone strike not possible.
Still, the U.S. hunt compelled al-Zawahri to stay in the tribal areas of Pakistan, probably limiting the effectiveness of his management inside Al Qaeda.
“Anytime anything related to Bin Laden or Zawahri hit the intel channels, everyone stopped to pitch in and help,” stated Lisa Maddox, a former C.I.A. analyst. “It was the C.I.A.’s promise to the public: to bring them to justice.”
On April 1, prime intelligence officers briefed nationwide safety officers at the White House about the secure home and the way they’d tracked al-Zawahri. After the assembly, the C.I.A. and different intelligence businesses labored to study extra about what they known as al-Zawahri’s sample of life.
One key perception was that he was by no means seen leaving the home and solely appeared to get recent air by standing on a balcony on an higher ground. He remained on the balcony for prolonged intervals, which gave the C.I.A. a great probability to focus on him.
Al-Zawahri continued to work at the secure home, producing movies to be distributed to the Qaeda community.
A senior administration official, who spoke on the situation of anonymity to debate the delicate choices resulting in the strike, stated the intelligence introduced to the White House had been repeatedly vetted, together with by a group of impartial analysts tasked with figuring out everybody who was staying at the secure home.
As choices for a strike had been developed, intelligence officers examined what variety of missile could possibly be fired at al-Zawahri with out inflicting main injury to the secure home or the neighborhood round it. They finally selected a kind of Hellfire missile designed to kill a single particular person.
William J. Burns, the C.I.A. director, and different intelligence officers briefed President Biden on July 1, this time with the mannequin of the secure home, the senior official stated.
At that assembly, Mr. Biden requested about the chance of collateral injury, prodding Mr. Burns to take him by means of the steps of how officers had discovered al-Zawahri and confirmed his data, and their plans to kill him.
Mr. Biden ordered a collection of analyses. The White House requested the National Counterterrorism Center to supply an impartial evaluation on the impression of al-Zawahri’s removing, each in Afghanistan and to the community worldwide, stated a senior intelligence official. The president additionally requested about the attainable dangers to Mark R. Frerichs, an American hostage held by the Haqqanis.
In June and July, officers met a number of instances in the Situation Room to debate the intelligence and study the potential ramifications.
The C.I.A. plans known as for it to make use of its personal drones. Because it was utilizing its personal belongings, few Pentagon officers had been introduced into the planning for the strike, and lots of senior army officers realized about it solely shortly earlier than the White House announcement, an official stated.
On July 25, Mr. Biden, glad with the plan, licensed the C.I.A. to conduct the airstrike when the alternative introduced itself. Sunday morning in Kabul, it did. A drone flown by the C.I.A. discovered al-Zawahri on his balcony. The company operatives fired the missile, ending a greater than two-decade-long hunt.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Adam Goldman and Michael Crowley contributed reporting.