In this file handout picture released by the SITE Intelligence Group on Oct. 4, 2009 shows Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Al-Qaeda number two, giving a eulogy for Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi.
Two senior national security officials were first briefed on the intelligence in early April, with the president being briefed by national security adviser Jake Sullivan shortly thereafter. Through May and June, a small circle of officials across the government worked to vet the intelligence and devise options for Biden.
On July 1 in The White House Situation Room, after returning from a five-day trip to Europe, Biden was briefed on the proposed strike by his national security aides. It was at that meeting, the official said, that Biden viewed the model of the safe house and peppered advisers, including CIA Director William Burns, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and National Counterterrorism Center director Christy Abizaid, with questions about their conclusion that al-Zawahiri was hiding there.
Biden, the official said, also pressed officials to consider the risks the strike could pose to American Mark Frerichs, who has been in Taliban captivity for more than two years, and to Afghans who aided the U.S. war efforts who remain in the country.
U.S. lawyers also considered the legality of the strike, concluding that al-Zawahiri’s continued leadership of the terrorist group and support for al-Qaida attacks made him a lawful target.
The official said al-Zawahiri had built an organizational model that allowed him to lead the global network even from relative isolation. That included filming videos from the house, and the U.S. believes some may be released after his death.
On July 25, as Biden was isolated in The White House residence with COVID-19, he received a final briefing from his team.
Each of the officials participating strongly recommended the operation’s approval, the official said, and Biden gave the sign-off for the strike as soon as an opportunity was available.
That unanimity was lacking a decade earlier when Biden, as vice president, gave President Barack Obama advice he did not take – to hold off on the bin Laden strike, according to Obama’s memoirs.
The opportunity came early Sunday – late Saturday in Washington – hours after Biden again found himself in isolation with a rebound case of the coronavirus. He was informed when the operation began and when it concluded, the official said.
A further 36 hours of intelligence analysis would follow before U.S. officials began sharing that al-Zawahiri was killed, as they watched the Haqqani Taliban network restrict access to the safe house and relocate the dead al-Qaida leader’s family. U.S. officials interpreted that as the Taliban trying to conceal the fact they had harbored al-Zawahri.
After last year’s troop withdrawal, the U.S. was left with fewer bases in the region to collect intelligence and carry out strikes on terrorist targets. It was not clear from where the drone carrying the missiles was launched or whether countries it flew over were aware of its presence.
The U.S. official said no American personnel were on the ground in Kabul supporting the strike and the Taliban was provided with no forewarning of the attack.
In remarks 11 month ago, Biden had said the U.S. would keep up the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries, despite pulling out troops. “We just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it.”
“We have what’s called over-the-horizon capabilities,” he said.
On Sunday, the missiles came over the horizon.