For Biden, the opportunity to eliminate the world’s most wanted terrorist, one of the masterminds of the September 11, 2001 attacks, was fraught with the danger of accidentally killing civilians in the Afghan capital – just as a US drone strike did 11 months ago during the chaotic US military withdrawal from the country. .
A senior administration official revealed details and planning for the strike as Biden prepared to announce the mission on Monday.
During the months-long effort to plan the weekend’s strike, Biden repeatedly tasked his officials with ensuring that civilians — including members of the Zawahiri family — were not killed. None of it was, according to the White House.
Biden, who had been isolated due to contracting the Covid-19 virus during final deliberations and permission to strike, appeared to declare success on the White House balcony on Monday. It was a moment of triumph for a president beset by internal political turmoil dating back to the deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan a year ago.
“People around the world no longer need to fear a vicious, determined killer,” Biden said from the balcony of the Blue Room. “The United States continues to demonstrate our resolve and ability to defend the American people against those who seek to do us harm.” White House.
The president was first briefed in April of the CIA’s placement of al-Zawahiri in a safe house in Kabul. US officials have known of a network supporting the terrorist leader in the Afghan capital for months, and have identified his wife, daughter and children through multiple streams of intelligence.
The women used terrorist “crafts” that officials deemed designed to prevent anyone from following them to al-Zawahiri’s site in a Kabul neighborhood. Al-Zawahiri himself did not leave the place after his arrival this year.
As the months passed, US officials began to establish patterns in the house—including that al-Zawahiri periodically appeared on the porch of the house for extended periods of time.
With officials continuing to monitor his activities, a top-secret effort began to analyze the building’s construction and structure, focusing on developing a process to eliminate the world’s No. 1 terrorist target without compromising the building’s structural integrity.
A top priority for Biden and members of his team was to avoid killing civilians, including members of the al-Zawahiri family who lived in the building. Independent analysts from across the government participated in identifying the other occupants of the house.
Having the building in downtown Kabul presented its own challenges.
Surrounded by a residential neighborhood, officials were conscious of their planning and information that had to be “solid” before any options were presented to Biden. And they were very wary of leaks – only a “very small, select group” of a scattered group of major agencies were notified of the plans.
Biden was also concerned about how this would affect US efforts to secure the return of Mark Frerich, a US citizen who has been held hostage in Afghanistan for more than two years. A senior administration official said Biden has pressed his team to mitigate risks to those efforts, along with ongoing attempts to resettle Afghans who helped the United States during the war.
“Going forward with the Taliban, we will continue to hold them accountable for their actions. We have made it clear to them in the intervening days that we also expect them not to take any action that would harm Marc Freirich, as we were involved in trying to secure his release long after his arrest,” the official said. and his family”.
As May and June came, Biden was up to date on developments. On July 1, senior national security officials gathered in the White House Situation Room for a briefing on the proposed operation. Seated around the table were CIA Director Bill Burns, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and his deputy John Viner, and Homeland Security Adviser Liz Sherwood Randall.
A senior official said Biden was “deeply involved in the briefing and was immersed in the intelligence.” He asked “detailed questions about what we knew and how we knew it.”
Of particular interest was a scale model of the al-Zawahiri home that intelligence officials had built and brought to the White House for examination by the president. The official said Biden wondered how the sun could illuminate a home and building materials and how the weather might affect any operation.
“He focused in particular on ensuring that every step was taken to ensure that the operation would reduce the risk” of civilian casualties, the official said.
Biden asked his team for more information about the building’s plans and how the strike might affect him. He traveled to Camp David later that afternoon.
His team stayed behind, meeting several times in the operating room over the coming weeks to complete planning, answer the president’s questions and ensure they took every emergency situation to reduce risk.
There was a parallel effort by the administration’s top lawyers to examine the intelligence on al-Zawahiri and lay the legal basis for the operation.
On July 25 – while in isolation with Covid-19 at the White House – Biden brought his team back together for one last briefing. The official said he pressed again on an “accurate level”, asking about any additional options that could reduce civilian casualties.
He asked about the layout of the house—rooms were set behind windows and doors on the third floor—and what impact the strike would likely have.
He circled his team, inquiring about the opinion of each official.
In the end, it allowed a “precision air strike” to eliminate the target.
Five days later, two Hellfire missiles were fired on the porch of a safe house in Kabul at 6:18 a.m. local time. And “multiple streams of intelligence” confirmed the death of al-Zawahiri.
The official said members of his family, who were in other areas of the house, were unharmed.
Biden, who remains in isolation at his home in the White House with a Covid virus infection, has been told when the process will begin and when it will end
CNN’s MJ Lee contributed to this report.
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