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


WASHINGTON — Intelligence officers made an important discovery this spring after tracking Ayman al-Zawahri, the leader of Al Qaeda, to Kabul, Afghanistan: He liked to read alone on the balcony of his protected house early within the morning.

Analysts seek for that form of pattern-of-life intelligence, any habit the C.I.A. can exploit. In al-Zawahri’s case, his long balcony visits gave the agency a chance for a transparent missile shot that might avoid collateral damage.

The hunt for al-Zawahri, one among the world’s most wanted terrorists, stretches back to before the Sept. 11 attacks. The C.I.A. continued to look for him as he rose to the highest of Al Qaeda after the death of Osama bin Laden and after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last 12 months. And a misstep in the course of the chase, the recruitment of a double agent, led to one among the bloodiest days within the agency’s history.

Soon after america left Kabul, the C.I.A. sharpened its efforts to seek out al-Zawahri, convinced he would attempt to return to Afghanistan. Senior officials had told the White House they’d have the ability to take care of and construct informant networks contained in the country from afar, and that america wouldn’t be blind to terrorism threats there. For the agency, finding al-Zawahri could be a key test of that assertion.

This text is predicated on interviews with current and former American and other officials, independent analysts who’ve studied the decades-long hunt and others briefed on the events leading as much as the weekend strike. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity due to sensitive intelligence used to seek out al-Zawahri.

For years al-Zawahri was considered hiding within the border area of Pakistan, where many Qaeda and Taliban leaders took refuge after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001. He was wanted in reference to the 1998 embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, and the C.I.A. had tracked a network of people that intelligence officials thought supported him.

The examination of that network intensified with the U.S. exit from Afghanistan last 12 months and a belief amongst some intelligence officials that senior leaders of Al Qaeda could be tempted to return.

The hunch proved right. The agency came upon that al-Zawahri’s family had returned to a protected house in Kabul. Though the family tried to make sure they weren’t being watched and to maintain al-Zawahri’s location secret, intelligence agencies soon learned he too had returned to Afghanistan.

“There was a renewed effort to determine where he was,” said Mick Mulroy, a former C.I.A. officer. “The one good thing that might need come out of withdrawing from Afghanistan is that certain high-level terrorist figures would then think it’s protected for them to be there.”

The protected house was owned by an aide to senior officials within the Haqqani network, a battle-hardened and violent wing of the Taliban government, and it was in an area controlled by the group. Senior Taliban leaders occasionally met at the home, but American officials don’t know the way many knew that the Haqqanis were hiding al-Zawahri.

If some senior Taliban officials didn’t know that the Haqqanis had allowed al-Zawahri to return, his killing could drive a wedge between the groups, independent analysts and others briefed on the events said.

It shouldn’t be clear why Al-Zawahri moved back to Afghanistan. He had long made recruiting and promotional videos, and it could have been easier to supply them in Kabul. He also could have had higher access to medical treatment.

Regardless of what the explanation, his ties to leaders of the Haqqani network led U.S. intelligence officials to the protected house.

“The Haqqanis have a really long relationship with Al Qaeda going back to the mujahedeen days,” said Dan Hoffman, a former C.I.A. officer. “They supply Al Qaeda with numerous tactical support that they need.”

Once the protected house was situated, the C.I.A. followed the playbook it wrote in the course of the hunt for Bin Laden. The agency built a model of the location and sought to learn every thing about it.

Analysts eventually identified a figure who lingered on the balcony reading, but never left the home, as al-Zawahri.

U.S. officials quickly decided to focus on him, but the situation of the home posed problems. It was within the Sherpur neighborhood of Kabul, an urban area of closely spaced houses. A missile armed with a big explosive could damage nearby homes. And any kind of incursion by Special Operations forces could be prohibitively dangerous, limiting the choices for the U.S. government to conduct a strike.

The seek for al-Zawahri carried huge importance for the agency. After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the C.I.A. base in Khost Province became home to a targeting group dedicated to tracking each Bin Laden and al-Zawahri. It was one among the leads developed by the C.I.A. to trace al-Zawahri that proved disastrous for the agency’s officers at that base, Camp Chapman.

C.I.A. officers hoped Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, a Jordanian doctor and propagandist for Al Qaeda, would make them al-Zawahri. He provided American officials with details about al-Zawahri’s health, convincing them his intelligence was real. But he was in actual fact a double agent, and on Dec. 30, 2009, he showed up at Camp Chapman with a suicide vest. When it exploded, seven C.I.A. officers were killed.

For a lot of, the Khost attack intensified efforts to seek out al-Zawahri. “To honor their legacy, you carry on with the mission,” Mr. Hoffman said.

In 2012 and 2013, the C.I.A. focused the hunt on Pakistan’s North Waziristan region. C.I.A. analysts were confident that they had found the small village where al-Zawahri was hiding. But intelligence agencies couldn’t find his house within the town of a few dozen compounds, making a raid or drone strike unattainable.

Still, the U.S. hunt forced al-Zawahri to stay within the tribal areas of Pakistan, possibly limiting the effectiveness of his leadership inside Al Qaeda.

“Anytime anything related to Bin Laden or Zawahri hit the intel channels, everyone stopped to pitch in and help,” said Lisa Maddox, a former C.I.A. analyst. “It was the C.I.A.’s promise to the general public: to bring them to justice.”

On April 1, top intelligence officials briefed national security officials on the White House concerning the protected house and the way that they had tracked al-Zawahri. After the meeting, the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies worked to learn more about what they called al-Zawahri’s pattern of life.

One key insight was that he was never seen leaving the home and only appeared to get fresh air by standing on a balcony on an upper floor. He remained on the balcony for prolonged periods, which gave the C.I.A. an excellent likelihood to focus on him.

Al-Zawahri continued to work on the protected house, producing videos to be distributed to the Qaeda network.

A senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to debate the sensitive decisions resulting in the strike, said the intelligence presented to the White House had been repeatedly vetted, including by a team of independent analysts tasked with identifying everyone who was staying on the protected house.

As options for a strike were developed, intelligence officials examined what form of missile may very well be fired at al-Zawahri without causing major damage to the protected house or the neighborhood around it. They ultimately selected a type of Hellfire missile designed to kill a single person.

William J. Burns, the C.I.A. director, and other intelligence officials briefed President Biden on July 1, this time with the model of the protected house, the senior official said.

At that meeting, Mr. Biden asked about the opportunity of collateral damage, prodding Mr. Burns to take him through the steps of how officers had found al-Zawahri and confirmed his information, and their plans to kill him.

Mr. Biden ordered a series of analyses. The White House asked the National Counterterrorism Center to supply an independent assessment on the impact of al-Zawahri’s removal, each in Afghanistan and to the network worldwide, said a senior intelligence official. The president also asked concerning the possible risks to Mark R. Frerichs, an American hostage held by the Haqqanis.

In June and July, officials met several times within the Situation Room to debate the intelligence and examine the potential ramifications.

The C.I.A. plans called for it to make use of its own drones. Since it was using its own assets, few Pentagon officials were brought into the planning for the strike, and lots of senior military officials learned about it only shortly before the White House announcement, an official said.

On July 25, Mr. Biden, satisfied with the plan, authorized the C.I.A. to conduct the airstrike when the chance presented itself. Sunday morning in Kabul, it did. A drone flown by the C.I.A. found al-Zawahri on his balcony. The agency 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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