It was a worn-out routine that eventually led to his death.
Shortly after sunrise last Sunday, Ayman al-Zawahiri took to the air on the third-floor balcony of his hiding place in Kabul’s upscale Sherpur neighborhood, a short walk from the British embassy, after completing his morning prayers.
As the sun rose over the capital, the al-Qaeda leader would have been unaware of the CIA Reaper drone orbiting tens of thousands of feet above him.
At 6:18 a.m., the unmanned aerial vehicle fired two R9X “Ninja” Hellfires, a new-age, hyper-accurate missile system that replaces explosives with six razor-like blades.
Moments later, Al-Zawahiri was dead, in tatters, his jihad over.
His family, just a few steps from the building, was unharmed.
Joe Biden announced the success of the mission in a live TV speech on Monday and was blunt.
“Justice has been done,” said the US president. “This terrorist leader is no more.”
The strike against Osama bin Laden’s former deputy, and one of the last 9/11 masterminds still at large, ended a generational manhunt.
For more than a decade, the track had gone cold.
Al-Zawahiri appeared in a video last year marking the anniversary of the 2001 attacks, but it offered little clue as to his whereabouts.
Earlier this year, however, US intelligence heard whispers that the former Egyptian doctor who succeeded bin Laden as head of al-Qaeda in 2011 was back in Afghanistan.
In early April, top security officials were informed that Al-Zawahiri’s wife, their daughter and grandchildren had moved to a hiding place in the old diplomatic quarter and were using textbook terrorist crafts in an attempt to avoid being tracked.
Then they informed the president.
Was it possible that, despite the Doha agreement with the Donald Trump administration, the restored Taliban regime was once again harboring terrorists?
American spies soon gained confidence that Al-Zawahiri did indeed live in the house.
As in the case of bin Laden 11 years earlier, they started weaving together different threads of intelligence to build what is called a “pattern of life” to confirm his presence.
In all those weeks, US intelligence was never aware of the person they believe was the al-Qaeda boss who left the building.
However, he was observed to spend significant amounts of time on the balcony.
The echoes of Abbottabad, the sleepy Pakistani compound where bin Laden hid from surveillance but was eventually killed by US Navy Seals in 2011, must have been deafening.
John Kirby, the US National Security Council’s strategic communications coordinator, told CNN on Tuesday that US spies had spent “weeks, if not several months” making sure we had the right man.
He said, “Once we knew we had an effective life pattern and opportunities that could be exploited, it really came down to putting together how you were going to seize that opportunity and with what.”
Mr Biden received updates in May and June. At the beginning of July, the intelligence chiefs had come up with a plan.
During a briefing in the White House situation room on July 1, William Burns, the director of the CIA, and others showed Mr. Biden a detailed model of the house where Al-Zawahiri resided.
The president is said to have asked questions about the weather, the strength of building materials and other factors that could affect the success of a missile strike and the likelihood of civilian casualties.
On July 25, Mr. Biden convened his advisers and key cabinet members for a final meeting on the latest intelligence.
Not for the first time, he asked about options other than an air strike.
When these were “systematically eliminated,” the president gave the go-ahead for a tailor-made missile strike on the condition that civilian casualties are minimized.
The choice of missile may have been crucial in authorizing what may have been the most significant attack since 2011.
Created by Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, the R9X Hellfire marks a new generation of precision weapons with six reinforced metal blades that extend just before hitting the target.
By abandoning the explosive warhead, U.S. military and spy conductors hope to put behind them the routine collateral damage—the seemingly brutal killing of innocent relatives, neighbors, and bystanders—that became such a hallmark of the War on Terror.
It was used in January 2019 to take down a Taliban leader known only as Mohabullah, as well as Jamel Ahmed Mohammed Ali al-Badawi, a suspect in the 2000 USS Cole bombing.
In deciding whether and how best to attack Al-Zawahiri, the White House will have taken into account the “terrible mistake” made last year when 10 innocent people were killed in a rocket attack when they were mistaken for members of the Islamic State that the US followed. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
As Mr. Kirby put it, “The President made it very clear when he made the decision that he wanted to make sure we were avoiding civilian casualties, and we know we’ve done that from a range of intelligence and other sources at our disposal.”
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