Washington: As the sun was rising in Kabul on Sunday, two Hellfire missiles fired by a US drone ended Ayman al-Zawahiri’s decade-long reign as the leader of al-Qaeda.
The seeds of the audacious operation had been planted over many months. US officials had built a scale model of the safe house where al-Zawahiri had been located, and brought it into the White House Situation Room to show President Joe Biden.
They knew al-Zawahiri 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.
Bin Laden’s death came in May 2011, face to face with a US assault team led by Navy Seals.
Al-Zawahiri’s death came from afar at 6.18 am in Kabul.
His family, supported by the Haqqani Taliban network, had taken up residence in the home after the Taliban regained control of the country last year, following the withdrawal of US forces after nearly 20 years of combat that had been intended, in part, to keep al-Qaeda from regaining a base of operations in Afghanistan.
But the lead on his whereabouts was only the first step.
Confirming al-Zawahiri’s identity, devising a strike in a crowded city that wouldn’t recklessly endanger civilians, and ensuring the operation wouldn’t set back other US priorities took months to fall into place.
That effort involved independent teams of analysts reaching similar conclusions about the probability of al-Zawahiri’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 advisors to go ahead with the strike.
Clear and convincing, Biden called the evidence. “I authorised the precision strike that would remove him from the battlefield once and for all.”
The consequences of getting it wrong on this type of judgment call were devastating a year ago this month, when a US drone strike during the chaotic withdrawal of American forces killed 10 innocent family members, seven of them children.
A senior US administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the strike planning, said al-Zawahiri was identified on multiple occasions, for sustained periods of time on the balcony where he died.
The official said multiple streams of intelligence convinced US analysts of his presence, having eliminated all reasonable options other than his being there.
Two senior national security officials were first briefed on the intelligence in early April, with the president being briefed by national security advisor Jake Sullivan shortly thereafter.
Through May and June, a small circle of officials across the government worked to vet the intelligence and devise options for Biden.
On July 1 in the White House Situation Room, after returning from a five-day trip to Europe, Biden was briefed on the proposed strike by his national security aides.
It was at that meeting, the official said, that Biden viewed the model of the safe house and peppered advisors, including CIA Director William Burns, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and National Counterterrorism Centre director Christy Abizaid, with questions about their conclusion that al-Zawahiri was hiding there.
On July 25, as Biden was isolated in the White House residence with COVID-19, he received a final briefing from his team.
It was not clear from where the drone carrying the missiles was launched or whether countries it flew over were aware of its presence.