How the CIA targeted Al-Qaeda leader Zawahiri

STORY: How does a government target an elusive militant leader?

In the case of Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri – killed by the U.S. government over the weekend – it’s through "careful, patient and persistent" work by counter-terrorism and intelligence agencies, according to a senior administration official.

Zawahiri’s death - the biggest blow to Al Qaeda since the U.S. killed its founder Osama bin Laden in 2011 – came after he had been in hiding for years, rumored to have been in Pakistan's tribal area or inside Afghanistan.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official laid out the details – starting with how the U.S. government had been aware of a network that supported Zawahiri.

Over the past year, following the U.S.’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, officials had been watching for indications of Al Qaeda's presence in the country.

This year, they confirmed that Zawahiri's family - his wife, his daughter and her children - had relocated to a safe house in Kabul. Zawahiri was later identified at the same location.

Once at the safe house, Zawahiri stayed put – and was identified multiple times on the balcony of the house.

By April, President Joe Biden was briefed by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.

On July 1st, after weeks of meetings, the President and his top advisors, including CIA Director William Burns, convened in the White House Situation Room, where Biden was presented with a plan to take out Zawahiri.

Senior inter-agency lawyers confirmed that Zawahiri was a lawful target based on his continuing leadership of Al Qaeda.

On July 25, Biden was given a final briefing.

The president then authorized "a precise tailored air strike" on the condition that it minimize the risk of civilian casualties.

The strike was carried out at 9:48 p.m. ET – or 0148 GMT - on July 30 by a drone firing so-called "hellfire" missiles, striking Zawahiri where he had often been spotted - on the balcony of his safe house.

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