Dan Smock loved the view from the balcony of the house in Kabul that he shared with fellow American aid workers. It looked out over the rooftops of the Afghan capital, with beautiful snowcapped mountains in the distance. Smock liked it so much that he says he “hanged out on that balcony a lot” during his time in Afghanistan.
Another person who came to appreciate that same vision was 9/11 plotter and al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, who took to the skies early Sunday morning from the same balcony when he was killed in a US drone strike.
Osama bin Laden’s successor is said to have been mauled by a special Hellfire missile that wields a knife while alone on his balcony. His ill-fated daily habit of reading on the scenic terrace of what he believed to be his hiding place was eventually used to establish a “pattern of life” in the operation that killed him, according to reports.
But long before Zawahiri, 71, had his last moments there, the same balcony was an American retreat in the heart of Kabul.
“It’s a little weird,” Smock, who now lives in Texas, told The Daily Beast. “I’ve talked about it with a few people, the people I lived with there. We all looked at some of our old photos that we were able to dig up. Most of them are blurry or full of drunk people, but you know.”
The 48-year-old says he lived in the house between 2012 and 2014. At the time, Smock was working on USAID funded projects in Afghanistan. He has fond memories of living in the building with colleagues in a safe bubble, isolated from the dangers that plagued Kabul at the time. “We called it the ‘Kabubble,'” says Smock. “It got to a point where you really couldn’t leave, so it’s just you all hang out together. It’s really going to be this kind of student party-like experience because I have nowhere to go, I have nothing else to do, and we can get alcohol, right?”
“How is he going to post this bastard on Zillow? He’ll have to reveal that, you know, Al Qaeda died on the balcony.”
— Dan Smock
So imagine Smock’s surprise this week when it turned out that not only was his former college dorm being used as a hideout for the world’s most wanted terrorist, but the drone strike on him hit the same balcony where Smock once spent the hours. “The first one was like, ‘That’s weird. Hey. Shit. Of course he was on that balcony — it’s a good balcony,’ the guard, said of his initial reaction. “Then it’s a bit weird. We literally financed that building and then we had to leave and then he’s there.”
At first, Iraq veteran Smock wasn’t sure if it could really be the same place he was locked up by the US government. But soon, the details that emerged in the reports of the murder left him without a doubt. The strike took place in a building in Sherpur district behind Ghazanfar bank. Photos of the building after the attack also include striking grid-like features that Smock recognized immediately. It wasn’t long before Smock concluded, “Okay, yes, that’s the house. I probably lived on the same floor as him.”
During his time there, Smock wrote a blog called Sunny in Kabul and even used a view from the balcony as the headline image. He now writes fiction based on his experiences in Afghanistan, and the absurdity of this week’s events, he says, is too good to miss. He liked to imagine the poor real estate agent tasked with finding a new tenant for his former home. “How is he going to post this bastard on Zillow?” says Smok. “He will have to reveal that, you know, al-Qaeda died on the balcony.”
His personal feelings about his former home being pushed aside, Smock is skeptical of the value of operations like the one that killed Zawahiri. “It’s very much like Sisyphus rolling that damn rock up the hill and eventually just rolling over us,” Smock says. “What’s frustrating for me to see is that we’re still playing the same game of whack-a-mole. We still do the high-quality purpose. We still think, ‘If we kill the CEO, that’ll solve it.’ And it doesn’t.”
But the enduring feeling for the former US government contractor is just the madness of it all. “It’s a very surreal experience to go full circle: ‘Oh, yes, the man who started the GWOT [global war on terror] lived at my house,” he says.