How the CIA pursued Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawari – The New York Times | Gmx Pharm

WASHINGTON — Intelligence officers made a crucial discovery this spring after tracking al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawari in Kabul, Afghanistan: He liked to read early in the morning alone on the balcony of his safe house.

Analysts look for this type of life pattern, any habit that the CIA can exploit. In the case of al-Zawari, his long balcony visits gave the agency an opportunity for a clear rocket shot that could avoid collateral damage.

The hunt for al-Zawari, one of the world’s most wanted terrorists, dates back to before the 9/11 attacks. The CIA continued to search for him as he rose to the top of Al Qaeda following the death of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan last year. And one misstep during the chase, recruiting a double agent, led to one of the bloodiest days in agency history.

Shortly after the United States left Kabul, the CIA intensified its efforts to find al-Zawari, believing that he would attempt to return to Afghanistan. Senior officials had told the White House that they would be able to remotely maintain and establish whistleblower networks in the country and that the United States would not be blind to terrorist threats there. For the agency, finding al-Zawari would be a crucial test of that claim.

This article is based on interviews with current and former American and other officials, independent analysts who have studied the decades-long hunt, and others who were briefed on events leading up to the weekend’s strike. Most spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive intelligence used to find al-Zawari.

For years, al-Zawari was considered a hideout in Pakistan’s border region, where many al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders took refuge after the US invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001. He was wanted in connection with the 1998 embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. and the CIA had tracked a network of people who intelligence officials believed were supporting him.

Investigation of this network intensified with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan last year and the belief by some intelligence officials that senior al Qaeda leaders would be tempted to return.

The guess turned out to be correct. The agency found that al-Zawari’s family had returned to a safe house in Kabul. Although the family tried to ensure they were not observed and to keep al-Zawari’s whereabouts a secret, intelligence soon learned that he too had returned to Afghanistan.

“There was a renewed effort to find out where he was,” said Mick Mulroy, a former CIA officer. “The only good thing that could have come from withdrawing from Afghanistan is that certain high-level terrorists would then think it was safe for them to be there.”

The safe house belonged to an adviser to senior officials in the Haqqani Network, a battle-hardened and violent wing of the Taliban government, and was in an area controlled by the group. Senior Taliban leaders occasionally met at the house, but American officials don’t know how many knew the Haqqanis were hiding al-Zawari.

If some senior Taliban officials were unaware that the Haqqanis had allowed al-Zawari to return, his assassination could drive a wedge between the groups, said independent analysts and others familiar with the events.

It is not clear why Al-Zawari returned to Afghanistan. He had been making recruitment and promotional videos for a long time and it might have been easier to produce them in Kabul. He may also have had better access to medical treatment.

Whatever the reason, his ties to Haqqani Network leaders led US intelligence officials to the safe house.

“The Haqqanis have a very long association with al Qaeda, dating back to the mujahideen era,” said Dan Hoffman, a former CIA officer. “They provide a lot of tactical support to Al Qaeda that they need.”

Once the safe house was found, the CIA followed the script they wrote during the bin Laden hunt. The agency made a mockup of the site and tried to learn all about it.

Analysts eventually identified one figure who lingered on the balcony reading but never left the house as al-Zawari.

US officials quickly decided to target him, but the home’s location posed problems. It was located in the Sherpur district of Kabul, an urban area with closely spaced houses. A missile armed with a large explosive could damage nearby homes. And any sort of intervention by special operations forces would be prohibitively dangerous and limit the US government’s ability to go on strike.

The search for al-Zawari was of great importance to the agency. After the US invasion of Afghanistan, the CIA’s base in Khost province became home to a target group dedicated to the persecution of both bin Laden and al-Zawari. It was one of the leads developed by the CIA to track al-Zawari that proved disastrous for agency officials at Camp Chapman.

CIA officers hoped Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, a Jordanian doctor and al-Qaeda propagandist, would lead them to al-Zawari. He provided American officials with information about al-Zawari’s health and convinced them that his information was genuine. But he was actually a double agent, and on December 30, 2009, he showed up at Camp Chapman wearing a suicide vest. Seven CIA officers were killed in the explosion.

For many, the Khost attack increased efforts to find al-Zawari. “To honor her legacy, continue the mission,” Mr. Hoffman said.

In 2012 and 2013, the CIA focused its hunt on the North Waziristan region of Pakistan. CIA analysts were confident they had found the small village where al-Zawari was hiding. But intelligence agencies couldn’t find his home in the city with about a dozen connections, making a raid or drone strike impossible.

Still, the US hunt forced al-Zawari to remain in the tribal areas of Pakistan, potentially limiting the effectiveness of his leadership within al-Qaeda.

“Anytime anything related to bin Laden or Zawari reached the intelligence channels, everyone stopped to step in and help,” said Lisa Maddox, a former CIA analyst. “It was the CIA’s promise to the public: to bring you to justice.”

On April 1, senior intelligence officials briefed national security officials at the White House about the safe house and how they tracked down al-Zawari. After the meeting, the CIA and other intelligence agencies worked to learn more about what they called al-Zawari’s life pattern.

One key finding was that he was never seen leaving the house and only seemed to get some fresh air as he stood on an upper floor balcony. He stayed on the balcony for a long time, which gave the CIA a good chance to target him.

Al-Zawari continued to work in the shelter, producing videos to be distributed to the al-Qaeda network.

A senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive decisions that led to the strike, said the information provided to the White House had been repeatedly verified, including by a team of independent analysts tasked with to identify everyone who was in the safe house.

As options for an attack were developed, intelligence officials studied what type of rockets could be fired at al-Zawari without damaging the safe house or the neighborhood around it. They eventually settled on some type of Hellfire missile designed to kill a single person.

William J. Burns, the CIA director, and other intelligence officials briefed President Biden on July 1, this time using the safe house model, the senior official said.

At that meeting, Mr. Biden questioned the possibility of collateral damage and requested Mr. Burns to walk him through the steps of how officials found al-Zawari and confirmed his information as well as their plans to kill him.

Mr Biden ordered a series of analyses. The White House has asked the National Counterterrorism Center to provide an independent assessment of the impact of al-Zawari’s removal both in Afghanistan and on the network worldwide, a senior intelligence official said. The President also inquired about the possible risks to Mark R. Frerichs, an American hostage being held by the Haqqanis.

Officials met several times in June and July in the Situation Room to discuss the intelligence information and study the possible implications.

The CIA plans called for the use of its own drones. Because it used its own funds, few Pentagon officials were involved in planning the strike, and many senior military officials only found out about it shortly before the White House announced it, an official said.

On July 25, Mr. Biden, satisfied with the plan, authorized the CIA to conduct the airstrike if the opportunity arose. Sunday morning in Kabul, it did. A drone flown by the CIA found al-Zawari on his balcony. Agency agents fired two missiles, ending a more than two-decade-long hunt.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Adam Goldman and Michael Croley contributed reporting.

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