Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri enjoyed reading alone on the balcony of his Kabul safe house early in the morning, “lifestyle intelligence” that eventually gave US intelligence agencies the ability to carry out a precision strike that killed one of the world’s most wanted terrorists, according to a report.
Zawahiri, who played a key role in the September 11 attacks and later formed al-Qaeda’s regional affiliate in the Indian subcontinent, was killed in a US drone strike on Saturday night.
“Intelligence officers made a crucial discovery this spring after tracking al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri to Kabul, Afghanistan: he liked to read alone on the balcony of his safe house early in the morning,” The New York Times (NYT) said in a report titled “How the CIA Hunted Down the Leader of Al-Qaeda”.
The report said analysts are looking for “pattern intelligence,” meaning any habits the CIA can exploit to track and target terrorists. “In al-Zawahri’s case, his long visits to the balcony gave the agency an opportunity for a clear missile strike that could avert collateral damage,” he said.
Once intelligence agencies confirmed the location of Zawahiri’s hideout, “the CIA followed the playbook it wrote during the hunt for (Osama) bin Laden. The agency built a model of the site and sought to know everything about it”.
“Analysts eventually identified a character who lingered on the balcony reading, but never left the house, such as al-Zawahiri,” the NYT report said.
On July 25, Biden authorized the CIA to carry out the airstrike “when the opportunity arose.”
“Sunday morning in Kabul, it happened. A CIA-piloted drone found al-Zawahri on his balcony. Agency agents fired the missile, ending a hunt that spanned more than two decades,” says The report.
US President Joe Biden announced on Monday that Zawahiri, who took over the reins of al-Qaeda after the assassination of Osama bin Laden 11 years ago, had been killed in a US drone strike.
Biden said “justice has been served and this terrorist leader is no more.”
The NYT report says that on April 1, senior intelligence officials briefed national security officials at the White House about the safe house and how they tracked Zawahiri.
A “key idea” that had emerged about Zawahiri’s lifestyle was that “he was never seen leaving the house and only seemed to take the air while standing on a balcony on an upper floor. He remained on the balcony for long periods of time, which gave the CIA a good chance to target him.”
The leader of Al-Qaeda was killed by a Hellfire missile, “designed to kill a single person”.
Biden was briefed by CIA Director William Burns and other intelligence officials on July 1 and shown a model of the safe house, the report said.
Biden “asked about the possibility of collateral damage, prompting” Burns to explain “how officers found al-Zawahri and confirmed his information, and their plans to kill him.”
In June and July, discussions focused on intelligence and examining the potential ramifications of the strike.
The report adds that the “safe house” where Zawahiri stayed belonged to “an aide to senior Haqqani network officials” in an area of the Afghan capital controlled by the terror group.
“Senior Taliban officials sometimes met at the house, but US officials do not know how many knew that the Haqqanis were hiding al-Zawahri. While some senior Taliban officials did not know that the Haqqanis allowed al-Zawahri to return, his assassination could drive a wedge between the groups,” the report said citing independent analysts.
He added that Zawahiri’s ties to leaders of the Haqqani network “led US intelligence officials to the hideout” where he was hiding.
For many years it was believed that Zawahiri was hiding in the Pakistan border area and it is still unclear why he returned to Afghanistan, according to the report. After the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, it is believed that Zawahiri’s family moved back to a safe house in Kabul.
The NYT report said that while his family tried to ensure they were not being watched and to keep Zawahiri’s location secret, “intelligence agencies quickly learned that he, too, had returned to Afghanistan.
“There was a renewed effort to find out where he was,” the report quoted former CIA officer Mick Mulroy as saying. “The only good thing that could have come out of the withdrawal from Afghanistan is that some high profile terrorist figures would then think it’s safe for them to be there.
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