For Biden, the opportunity to take out the world’s most wanted terrorist, one of the masterminds of the September 11, 2001 attacks, was fraught with the risk of accidentally killing civilians in the Afghan capital – just as a US drone strike did 11 That was months earlier during the chaotic US military withdrawal from the country.
Details of the strike and its plan were disclosed by a senior administration official as Biden prepared to announce the mission on Monday.
During a months-long effort to plan for this weekend’s strike, Biden repeatedly tasked his officers with making sure that – including members of Zawahiri’s family – were not killed. According to the White House, there was none.
Isolated by the Covid-19 infection during final consultations and permitting the strike, Biden emerged on the White House balcony on Monday to declare success. It was a win-win moment for a president who has been beset by domestic political troubles that stretched until the deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan a year earlier.
Biden said from the Blue Room balcony, “People around the world no longer need to fear the vicious and determined killer. The United States continues to demonstrate our resolve and our ability to defend the American people against those who want to harm us.” white House.
The president was first informed of US intelligence in April that Zawahiri was being held in a safe house in Kabul. US officials had known for months a network supporting the terrorist leader in the Afghan capital, and had identified his wife, daughter and their children through a range of intelligence inputs.
The women used militant “tradecraft,” designed by authorities to deter anyone from following them at Zawahiri’s location in the Kabul neighborhood. After coming this year, Zawahiri himself did not leave the place.
As the months went by, US officials began to establish patterns at the home – including Zawahiri periodically emerging on the home’s balcony.
To analyze the building’s construction and structure, as authorities continue to monitor his activities, toward developing an operation to take out the world’s No. 1 terrorist target without compromising the building’s structural integrity. A completely covert effort began.
In the minds of members of Biden and his team, including members of Zawahiri’s family, who were living in the building, civilian deaths were avoided. Independent analysts across the government were involved in identifying the occupants of the home.
The building was located in the city of Kabul, it had its own challenges.
Surrounded by a residential neighborhood, officials had his plan and information in mind before offering Biden any option to be “rock solid.” And they were extremely wary of leaks – only a “very small and select group” of major agencies were informed of the plans.
Biden was also concerned about how it could affect US efforts to secure the return of Mark Frerich, a US citizen who was taken hostage in Afghanistan more than two years ago. A senior administration official said Biden pressured his team to downplay the risk of those efforts, along with ongoing efforts to relocate the Afghans who helped the US during the war.
“Going forward with the Taliban, we will continue to hold them accountable for their actions. And we have made it clear to them in the intervening days that we also expect them not to take any action that would harm Mark Frerichs , because we were involved in this. Trying to secure his release after his long custody and imprisonment,” the official said.
As in May and June, Biden was kept up with developments. On July 1, he gathered key national security officials in the White House Situation Room to receive a briefing on the proposed operation. CIA Director Bill Burns, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and his deputy John Finer and Homeland Security Advisor Liz Sherwood Randall sat around the table.
A senior official said Biden was deeply engaged in the briefing and was engrossed in intelligence. He asked “detailed questions about what we knew and how we knew it.”
Of particular interest was a scale model of Zawahiri’s home that intelligence officials built for the President at the White House and brought to the White House for investigation. The official said Biden questioned how the house could be lit by the sun, its construction materials and how the weather could affect any operations.
According to the official, “he was particularly focused on ensuring that every step was taken to ensure the operation was carried out so as to minimize the risk of civilian casualties”.
Biden asked his team for more information on the building’s plans and how it might be affected by the strike. He left for Camp David in the afternoon.
His team was left behind, convening in the Situation Room several times over the following weeks to lay out their plan, answer the president’s questions, and ensure every contingency they took to mitigate the risks.
There was a parallel effort by senior administrative lawyers to investigate the intelligence related to Zawahiri and establish a legal basis for the operation.
On July 25 – as he was recovering from Covid-19 at his White House residence – Biden brought his team back together to receive the final briefing. He again pressed on the “fine level”, the official said, asking about any additional options that could reduce civilian casualties.
He asked about the layout of the house – where the rooms were located behind windows and doors on the third floor – and what the potential impact of the strike would be.
And he went around his team, asking the view of each officer.
In the end, he authorized “precision tailored air strikes” to hit the target.
Five days later, at 6:18 a.m. local time, two Hellfire missiles were fired at the balcony of a safe house in Kabul. “Several intelligence streams” confirmed that Zawahiri was killed.
The official said that his family members, who were in other areas of the house, were not harmed.
Biden, still in isolation in his White House residence with a rebound Covid infection, was informed when the operation began and ended
CNN’s MJ Lee contributed to this report.