That terrorist was Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al-Qaeda leader who was killed in a CIA attack on Saturday. Nothing in official US statements describes Zawahiri’s death as repaying American losses in Khost, Afghanistan some 12 years earlier. But many former and current intelligence officers say that’s exactly what it felt like.
The CIA, as usual, has publicly conceded no role in launching the missile that struck Zawahiri while he was standing on his balcony in an apartment building in the Afghan capital of Kabul. But as of Monday, the confirmation of the 71-year-old Egyptian’s death has sparked an emotional reaction at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and also from former colleagues, friends and family members of those killed or wounded in 2009.
“This is an incredibly personal moment,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA Operations officer who worked with several of the agency’s five men and two women killed at Camp Chapman, a CIA base on the outskirts of Khost The agency conducted covert missions against al-Qaeda and Taliban militants. In addition to the seven CIA agents, a senior Jordanian intelligence officer and an Afghan driver were also killed.
Polymeropoulos described the deaths at Camp Chapman as “the most glaring example of the tragic cost of fighting terrorism.”
Numerous current and former CIA officials accompanied the news of Zawahiri’s death with posts on social media paying tribute to the CIA officers and security team officials who died in the Khost attack, the CIA’s deadliest attack , since eight staff members were killed in a 1983 US embassy bombing in Beirut.
“Remember. They’re heroes,” former CIA director and retired General Michael N. Hayden wrote in a Twitter post. In an interview, Hayden recalled working with two of the officers killed, Jennifer Matthews and Elizabeth Hanson, the Khost base chief, and learning of their deaths at CIA headquarters on the day of the attack.
“I went outside to my car and cried,” Hayden said.
CIA Director William J. Burns, when asked by the Washington Post, would not provide details of the operation against Zawahiri, but said the events were “deeply personal to the CIA.”
Zawahiri appeared on his balcony. The CIA was ready to kill him.
“A brutal attack in 2009 killed seven CIA officers in Khost in the hunt for Ayman al-Zawahiri,” Burns said. “While terrorism remains a very real challenge, Zawahiri’s removal reduces that threat and offers a measure of justice.”
Zawahiri’s role in al Qaeda’s amazingly complex operation against the CIA base was chronicled in a 2011 book and also detailed in articles and essays on the attack. The key figure was a Jordanian citizen, Humam al-Balawi, a doctor who got into trouble in his home country for posting pro-Al Qaeda messages on social media. After being interrogated by Jordanian intelligence, he was persuaded to become a counter-terrorism informant. Ultimately, Balawi agreed to travel to Pakistan to gather information that could help the CIA locate Osama bin Laden and other top al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders.
After months of disappearance, Balawi emerged in late 2009 with a chilling claim that he had established high-level contacts within the community of al-Qaeda fighters hiding in the lawless tribal region along the Afghan-Pakistani border.
As evidence, Balawi began supplying evidence of his interactions — including cellphone videos of senior al Qaeda leaders — to his Jordanian henchmen, who passed the information to the CIA. Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate regularly works with US counterparts to track and thwart terrorist operations around the world, and the two countries have consulted closely over the Balawi case.
In late December 2009, the CIA was keen to meet with the Jordanian spy, sensing a potential breakthrough in the agency’s long-dormant search for bin Laden and other terrorist leaders behind the September 11, 2001 attacks. Apparently reluctantly, Balawi agreed to a meeting at the CIA base in Khost. Then, in a move that was enthusiastically received by Americans, he dangled a particularly tantalizing new detail: The doctor administered medical care to Zawahiri, then al-Qaeda’s No. 2.
Balawi shared obscure details about Zawahiri’s physical condition, including his various chronic illnesses and his scars from years of torture in Egyptian prisons. The details matched what the CIA already knew about Zawahiri and seemed to confirm that Balawi was indeed in close contact with the al Qaeda surrogate.
The meeting was scheduled for December 30, 2009, and was attended by numerous CIA counterterrorism experts. Balawi arrived by car, and because of the extreme sensitivity surrounding the meeting, the CIA postponed any physical search of the informant until he was fully on the agency’s premises.
Balawi had indeed been on a mission, but his allegiance was to al-Qaeda, not Jordan or the CIA. Under his cloak he hid a bomb made of powerful C4 explosives. After getting within a few feet of the CIA team, he detonated the device.
The attack prompted a wide-ranging investigation and prompted numerous operational changes, including an increase in counterintelligence. Agency officials have not been able to determine the full extent of Zawahiri’s involvement in planning the 2009 attack, but at least he allowed himself to be used as bait for an elaborate operation that allowed a suicide bomber to enter an ultra-secure and top-secret invade CIA facility. current and former officials said.
Zawahiri’s journey to becoming a global terrorist leader
Because of this, many in the CIA saw Zawahiri’s death as justice after years of waiting. On Tuesday, a printed copy of a Washington Post article was placed on the grave of Matthews, the Khost base chief who was killed in 2009. “US Kills Al Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul Drone Strike,” read the headline.
The photo was shown in a Twitter post on Tuesday by Kristin Wooda former CIA officer who worked with Matthews.
“Be at peace sister,” the tweet reads.