Al-Zawahri's Habit of Sitting on Balcony Was His Undoing

Allowed US to target him in strike that wouldn't kill anyone else
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Aug 2, 2022 9:15 AM CDT
Studying Al-Zawahri's 'Pattern of Life' Key to His Death
As seen on a computer screen from a DVD prepared by Al-Sahab production, al-Qaida's Ayman al-Zawahri speaks in Islamabad, Pakistan, on June 20, 2006.   (AP Photo/B.K.Bangash, File)

(Newser) – As the sun was rising in Kabul on Sunday, two Hellfire missiles fired by a US drone ended Ayman al-Zawahri's decade-long reign as the leader of al-Qaeda. The seeds of the audacious counterterrorism operation had been planted over many months. US officials had built a scale model of the safe house where al-Zawahri had been located, and brought it into the White House Situation Room to show President Biden. They knew al-Zawahri was partial to sitting on the home's balcony. They had painstakingly constructed "a pattern of life," as one official put it. They were confident he was on the balcony when the missiles flew, officials said.

Years of efforts by US intelligence operatives under four presidents to track al-Zawahri paid dividends earlier this year, Biden said, when they located Osama bin Laden’s longtime No. 2 at the house in Kabul. But the lead on his whereabouts was only the first step. Confirming al-Zawahri’s identity and devising a strike in a crowded city that wouldn’t recklessly endanger civilians took months. CNN reports Biden and his team were focused on avoiding all civilian deaths, including those of al-Zawahri's family.

That effort involved independent teams of analysts reaching similar conclusions about the probability of al-Zawahri’s presence, the scale mock-up and engineering studies of the building to evaluate the risk to people nearby, and the unanimous recommendation of Biden’s advisers to go ahead with the strike. A senior US administration official told the AP al-Zawahri was identified on "multiple occasions, for sustained periods of time" on the balcony where he died. Biden ordered what officials called a “tailored airstrike,” designed so that the two missiles would destroy only the balcony of the safe house.

A further 36 hours of intelligence analysis would follow before US officials began sharing that al-Zawahri was killed, as they watched the Haqqani Taliban network restrict access to the safe house and relocate the dead al-Qaida leader’s family. US officials interpreted that as the Taliban trying to conceal the fact they had harbored al-Zawahri. (Read more Ayman al-Zawahri stories.)

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