How The CIA’s Hit On Terror Kingpin Zawahiri Went Down

Yesterday, President Joe Biden confirmed that the U.S. government carried out a drone strike that killed Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri at a safe house in Kabul. Readers can first get up to speed on the basics of the strike and Zawahiri in The War Zone‘s initial report here.

A senior Biden administration official provided additional granular about the strike and the planning that went into it at a separate press briefing that The War Zone attended yesterday. Other details have now emerged elsewhere, as well.

Ayman al Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s most recent leader, is seen in this screen grab from a video the group put out in September 2021 to mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Sahab/Al Qaeda capture Sahab/Al Qaeda capture

The senior administration official said that the strike was carried out at 6:18 AM local on July 31 (or 9:48 PM EST on July 30). An unspecified unmanned aircraft fired two Hellfire missiles at Zawahiri who was on a third-floor balcony at the time. The senior Biden administration did not confirm or deny reports that the drone in question was at least under the operational control of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) when the Al Qaeda leader was killed.

Pictures had been circulating online since yesterday of what the Taliban claimed was a U.S. strike on a residence in Kabul on July 31. There is visible damage in the images to a balcony on the third floor of the structure. There are unconfirmed reports that this was a luxurious residence and comparisons have already been made to Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

The U.S. government has not assessed there to have been any other casualties, civilian or otherwise, arising from the strike, which targeted a house that also contained members of Zawahiri’s immediate family. The senior administration official disputed local reports that a son-in-law of Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani and his wife, among others, had also died in the strike.

The extremely limited damage to the structure seen in the pictures circulating online, together with the U.S. government’s assertion that there were no other casualties beyond Zawahiri would seem to point to the use of specialized very-low-collateral damage variants of the Hellfire missile, such as the secret R9X version that uses an array of pop-out sword-like blades in lieu of a traditional warhead. There is also the possibility, despite the official statement that Hellfires were fired, that the strike actually involved the use of different, more specialized, and highly-precise weapon, such as an air-launched loitering munition.

The White House has also now said that the U.S. government does not have DNA evidence that the individual killed in the strike was Zawahiri, but confirmed his identity through a variety of other sources and methods, including a positive visual identification. Statements from other terrorists eulogizing the late Al Qaeda leader have now begun to emerge, offering additional evidence that he died.

The decision to strike was made because Zawahiri “continued to pose an active threat to U.S. persons, interests, and national security,” according to the senior administration official. “As President Biden has consistently said, we will not allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven for terrorists who might bring harm to Americans. We met that commitment on Saturday night.”

“And in doing so we showed that without American forces on the ground in Afghanistan and in harm’s way we remain able to identify and locate even the world’s most wanted terrorists, and then take action to remove him from the battlefield,” they added.

That official disclosed that U.S. Intelligence was aware for years of a network that had supported Zawahiri and helped keep him hidden. American authorities had been closely monitoring for any indications that the Al Qaeda leader might have returned to Afghanistan after the collapse of the country’s Western-backed government and the Taliban’s return to power last year. A tumultuous final withdrawal of American forces and similarly chaotic efforts to help foreign nationals and Afghans escape from the country had followed the Taliban’s capture of Kabul in August 2021.

Intelligence emerged earlier this year that Zawahiri’s wife, his daughter, and his daughter’s children had been relocated to a safe house in Kabul maintained by Taliban members affiliated with the Haqqani Network. As of 2019, at least per a statement from Al Qaeda, these family members were apparently in Pakistani custody, and it’s unclear when they may have been released or under what circumstances.

Zawahiri himself was subsequently assessed to have arrived there and reportedly did not ever leave the compound, with his family and the Taliban taking steps to conceal his presence. He did record videos, as well as direct Al Qaeda operations, from the safe house, and U.S. officials believe that additional recordings of him may now be released following his death.

Despite what the senior administration official described as “tradecraft” to keep Zawahiri hidden, the U.S. Intelligence Community was able to establish a detailed pattern of life for the Al Qaeda leader for use in planning a strike.

“We also investigated the construction and nature of the safe house in which he was located so that we could confidently conduct an operation to kill Zawahiri without threatening the structural integrity of the building, while minimizing the risk to civilians, including Zawahiri’s family,” the senior administration official said. “We convened a team of independent analysts to review all data surrounding the identity of the occupants of the safe house.”

“The President was, as always, deeply engaged in the briefing [on a proposed strike targeting Zawahiri on July 1] and immersed in the intelligence. He asked detailed questions about what we knew and how we knew it,” that official continued. “Importantly, he examined closely the model of Zawahiri’s house that the intelligence community had built and brought into the White House Situation Room for briefings on this issue. He sought explanations of lighting, of weather, of construction material, and other factors that could influence the success of this operation and reduce the risk of civilian casualties. He was particularly focused on ensuring that every step had been taken to ensure the operation would minimize that risk. And he wanted to understand the basis upon which we had confidence in our assessment.”

The use of scale models for operational planning and other intelligence purposes is well-established. A model of Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound created as part of the planning process for the raid there has become a particularly famous example.

At a later briefing, “he asked again about any other options that would reduce collateral or civilian casualties. He wanted to understand more about the layout of rooms behind the door and windows on the third floor of the building,” they added.

It’s not surprising that civilian casualties were a major concern for Biden. In August 2021, at the tail-end of the U.S. evacuation and withdrawal efforts, another botched U.S. drone strike completely misidentified a target in Kabul, killing a local employee of a U.S. aid group and nine other civilians, including seven children. In December 2021, The New York Times then published a major investigative report detailing symmetric failures by American officials to accurately assess civilian casualties caused by other airstrikes in Afghanistan, as well as Iraq and Syria. This has prompted calls to investigate instances of civilian casualties that U.S. forces have reportedly caused in other conflict zones, as well.

“Principals and deputies [had] also convened multiple times in person in the White House Situation Room over the course of June and July to pressure test the intelligence picture and to ensure that we had sufficiently red-teamed the options, while also thinking through how we might mitigate any risks or costs associated with moving forward,” the senior administration official added.

“A very tight circle of senior interagency lawyers examined the intelligence reporting and confirmed the legal basis for the operation,” the senior administration official said. Based on that legal determination, the available intelligence, and assessments of all options for neutralizing Zawahiri and their associated risks, Biden’s entire national security team unanimously supported executing the proposed strike. Only July 25, Biden authorized the strike at the earliest possible opportunity, with the specific instruction to only execute the mission if all efforts had been taken to minimize the risk of civilian causalities to the greatest extent possible.

The planning for the strike also incorporated discussions about potential risks to other tangential factors. Concerns about second-order impacts included fears about the continued safety of Mark Frerichs, an American civil engineer who the Taliban kidnapped in 2020. Potential disruptions to ongoing efforts to secure the safe relocation of Afghans who worked with the U.S. military and other branches of the U.S. government over the past two decades, and who are now at risk of Taliban reprisals, out of the country, and the possible loss of access to relevant airspace through which future operations could be conducted, were also factored in.

With regards to the point about airspace access, while it’s not clear where the drone that carried out the strike took off from or landed, it would have had to at least fly through the airspace of one or more neighboring countries, such as Pakistan, to get to Afghanistan. Not coordinating beforehand with authorities in those nations, as was the case with the Bin Laden raid, would risk creating separate geopolitical friction, or worse.

With this in mind, it’s also interesting to note that the senior administration official said that there were “zero American personnel on the ground in Kabul,” but that “another independent team” was involved in the confirmation that Zawahiri, and no one else, was killed in the strike. The AP has reported that a CIA ground team, which could well have been made up entirely of locals, along with aerial intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets, were involved in the post-strike assessment.

A curious picture of an unmanned aerial vehicle has been being shared online along with the pictures of the apparent house where the Al Qaeda leader was killed, too. Though the image’s resolution is very low, and it’s not entirely clear if it is even related to this recent strike, the shape of the aircraft mostly close resembles the distinctive wing configuration of the Chinese-made Wing Loong II drone. Pakistan is a known operator of Wing Loong IIs.

The New York Times reported in June 2021 that the CIA was in talks with its counterparts in Pakistani about the possibility of re-establishing a drone base in that country to support future operations over Afghanistan. Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper subsequently reported that authorities there had rebuffed the U.S. proposals, but instead had “asked the Americans to hand over the drones to them for carrying out the strikes against terrorist targets.”

At yesterday’s briefing, the senior Biden administration official declined to say whether or not Pakistan, or any other country, was involved in this operation in any way, as well as whether or not Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had helped hide Zawahiri. The ISI has a long history of ties to militant and terrorist groups in Afghanistan, including the Taliban and the Haqqani Network.

In addition, significant questions remain about what the Taliban, on a broad organizational level, did or did not know about Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul. The senior Biden administration official said that Haqqani-affiliate Taliban members had taken steps to try to conceal the Al Qaeda leader’s death after the strike, as well as the presence of his family in the building. This is in line in some ways with a statement from a Taliban spokesperson yesterday suggesting that the then-unconfirmed U.S. drone strike had targeted members of ISIS’ local franchise in Afghanistan, also known as ISIS-Khorasan Province or ISIS-K.

However, the senior administration official only said during the briefing that Haqqani-affiliated Taliban members were actively involved in sheltering Zawahiri. In addition, while this remains unconfirmed, Haibatullah Alizai, effectively the last general officer in command of the now-defunct Afghan Army, who now lives in Maryland, told The War Zone that his sources in Afghanistan had informed him that it was actually a faction within the Taliban that tipped off the U.S. government about the Al Qaeda leader. There have been reports since the Taliban’s return to power about internal disputes, some of which may have turned violent, between sub-groups, including the Haqqanis.

“Al Qaeda has had some problems with reconstituting leadership, and to a degree, I think the Taliban have held to their word about not allowing al-Qaeda to rejuvenate so far,” U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), told the Special Inspector General For Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) in June, according to a new report that the Congressional watchdog released just today. It seems unlikely that the Berrier would not have known about the intelligence regarding Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul at that time.

“The Taliban that I dealt with, they told me they did not know where he was,” former U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad had also told CBS News‘ Margaret Brennan in October 2021. He did add that there was something of a trust deficit at that point between him and members of that group.

Al Qaeda members and other important figures tied to the group certainly have had more freedom of movement in Afghanistan since the Taliban retook control by all indications. At the same time, U.S. officials see that “the Taliban is using travel and residency restrictions that are mostly enforced by its internal security apparatus, the General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI), to contain the movement of militants from other groups” and “these efforts appear to be working against some groups, such as TTP [Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, also known as the Pakistani Taliban] and al-Qaeda,” according to the new SIGAR report.

The Taliban have also simply condemned the strike as a violation of the agreement they struck with Ameican authorities in Doha, Qatar in 2020. The U.S. government has countered by saying that Zawahiri being in Kabul violates the Taliban’s obligations under that same agreement. The senior Biden official said that the U.S. government has no intention of ending its ongoing dialogue with the group in regards to various issues, including continued efforts to secure the release of Mark Frerichs.

If nothing else, the Biden administration believes Zawahiri’s death will actively degrade Al Qaeda’s ability to plan and execute operations worldwide, including future attacks in the United States, the senior administration official said at last night’s briefing. It is not clear who will succeed him now as head of the group.

It remains to be seen exactly how the fallout from this strike will impact further U.S. engagement with the Taliban, that group’s internal affairs, and the future of Al Qaeda, which will now be searching for a new leader.

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Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.