How the C.I.A. Tracked Ayman al-Zawahri, the Leader of Al Qaeda

WASHINGTON — Intelligence officers made an important discovery this spring after monitoring Ayman al-Zawahri, the chief of Al Qaeda, to Kabul, Afghanistan: He appreciated to learn alone on the balcony of his protected 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 might 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 loss of life 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 1 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 seek out al-Zawahri, satisfied he would attempt to return to Afghanistan. Senior officers had informed the White House they might be capable to keep 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 is predicated 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 seek 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 discovered that al-Zawahri’s household had returned to a protected 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 protected 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 often met at the home, however American officers have no idea what number of knew that the Haqqanis have 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 just isn’t clear why Al-Zawahri moved again to Afghanistan. He had lengthy made recruiting and promotional movies, and it could have been simpler to provide them in Kabul. He additionally could 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 protected 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 protected home was situated, 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 be taught every thing 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 shortly 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 intently spaced homes. A missile armed with a big explosive may injury close by houses. And any type 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 enormous significance for the company. After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the C.I.A. base in Khost Province grew to become 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 have been killed.

For many, the Khost assault intensified efforts to seek out al-Zawahri. “To honor their legacy, you carry on with the mission,” Mr. Hoffman stated.

In 2012 and 2013, the C.I.A. targeted the hunt on Pakistan’s North Waziristan area. C.I.A. analysts have 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 unattainable.

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 protected home and the way they’d tracked al-Zawahri. After the assembly, the C.I.A. and different intelligence businesses labored to be taught 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 contemporary air by standing on a balcony on an higher flooring. He remained on the balcony for prolonged durations, which gave the C.I.A. a great probability to focus on him.

Al-Zawahri continued to work at the protected 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 selections resulting in the strike, stated the intelligence offered to the White House had been repeatedly vetted, together with by a staff of impartial analysts tasked with figuring out everybody who was staying at the protected home.

As choices for a strike have been developed, intelligence officers examined what sort of missile might be fired at al-Zawahri with out inflicting main injury to the protected home or the neighborhood round it. They in the end selected a kind of Hellfire missile designed to kill a single individual.

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 protected home, the senior official stated.

At that assembly, Mr. Biden requested about the risk of collateral injury, prodding Mr. Burns to take him by 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 affect of al-Zawahri’s elimination, each in Afghanistan and to the community worldwide, stated a senior intelligence official. The president additionally requested about the potential 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 look at 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 property, few Pentagon officers have been introduced into the planning for the strike, and lots of senior navy officers realized about it solely shortly earlier than the White House announcement, an official stated.

On July 25, Mr. Biden, happy with the plan, approved the C.I.A. to conduct the airstrike when the alternative offered 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 two missiles, ending a greater than two-decade-long hunt.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Adam Goldman and Michael Crowley contributed reporting.

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