(CNN) — Before giving the order to kill Ayman al-Zawahiri, President Joe Biden wanted to fully understand where the al Qaeda leader was hiding.
The US drone strike that killed al-Zawahiri on his balcony in central Kabul was the product of months of highly secret planning by Biden and a close circle of his top advisers. Among the preparations was a small-scale model of al-Zawahiri’s safe house, built by intelligence officials and placed inside the White House Situation Room for Biden to examine as he debated his options.
For Biden, the opportunity to take down the world’s most wanted terrorist, one of the masterminds behind the attacks of September 11, 2001, presented the risk of accidentally killing civilians in the Afghan capital, just as an attack with US drones 11 months ago during the chaotic US military withdrawal from the country.
Details of the attack and its planning were revealed by a senior administration official as Biden prepared to announce the mission Monday.
Throughout the months-long effort to plan this weekend’s attack, Biden repeatedly tasked his officials with making sure civilians, including members of al-Zawahiri’s family, were not killed. None died, according to the White House.
Biden, who had to isolate himself due to a Covid-19 infection during the final deliberations and authorization of the attack, came out to proclaim success on a White House balcony on Monday. It was a moment of victory for a president who has been beset by internal political problems dating back to the deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan a year ago.
“The people of the world no longer need to fear the vicious and determined killer. The United States continues to demonstrate our resolve and our ability to defend the American people against those who seek to harm us,” Biden said from the Blue Room of the White House.
The president was first briefed in April on al-Zawahiri’s location in a safe house in Kabul by US intelligence. US authorities had been aware of a network supporting the terror leader in the Afghan capital for months and had identified his wife, daughter and children through multiple intelligence streams.
The women used terrorist “gadgets” that officials believed were designed to prevent anyone from following them to al-Zawahiri’s location in a Kabul neighborhood. Al-Zawahiri himself did not leave the site after his arrival this year.
As the months passed, US authorities began to establish patterns in the house, including al-Zawahiri’s periodic appearances on the house’s balcony for extended periods of time.
As officials continued to monitor their activities, a top-secret effort began to analyze the building’s construction and structure, with a view to developing an operation to take down the world’s No. 1 terrorist target without compromising the building’s structural integrity.
The most important thing for Biden and members of his team was to prevent the deaths of civilians, including members of al-Zawahiri’s family who lived in the building. Independent analysts from across the government were involved in identifying the other occupants of the house.
That the building was located in the center of Kabul presented its own challenges.
Surrounded by a residential neighborhood, officials kept in mind that their planning and information needed to be “rock solid” before presenting any options to Biden. And they were very careful about leaks: Only a “very small and select group” in a scattering of key agencies was told of the plans being hatched.
Biden was also concerned about how it could affect US efforts to secure the return of Mark Frerichs, a US citizen taken hostage in Afghanistan more than two years ago. A senior administration official said Biden pushed his team to mitigate the risks of those efforts, along with ongoing attempts to relocate Afghans who helped the United States during the war.
“Going forward with the Taliban, we will continue to hold them accountable for their actions. And we have made it clear to them, in the meantime, that we also hope they will not take action that will harm Mark Frerichs, as we continue to be involved in the effort to secure his release after his release.” long detention and captivity,” the official said.
As May and June progressed, Biden kept abreast of developments. On July 1, he assembled key national security officials in the White House Situation Room for a briefing on a proposed operation. CIA Director Bill Burns; the director of national intelligence, Avril Haines; National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his deputy Jon Finer, and National Security Advisor Liz Sherwood Randall sat around the table.
Biden was “deeply engaged in the briefing and immersed in intelligence,” a senior official said. He asked “detailed questions about what we knew and how we knew it.”
Of particular note was a scale model of al-Zawahiri’s home that intelligence officials had built and brought to the White House for the president to examine. Biden questioned how the sun could illuminate the house, its building materials and how the weather could affect any operations, the official said.
“He was particularly focused on making sure that all necessary steps had been taken to ensure that the operation minimized that risk” of civilian casualties, according to the official.
Biden asked his team for more information about the blueprints for the building and how an attack might affect it. He flew to Camp David later that day.
His team stayed in Washington, meeting several times in the Situation Room over the next few weeks to complete their planning, answer questions from the president, and make sure they had taken all contingencies to minimize risks.
A parallel effort was underway by senior administration lawyers to examine intelligence related to al-Zawahiri and establish the legal basis for the operation.
On July 25, while isolating with covid-19 in the White House residence, Biden reconvened his team for a final briefing. He again pushed at a “granular level,” the official said, asking about any additional options that might minimize civilian casualties.
He asked about the layout of the house, where the rooms were located behind the windows and doors on the third floor, and what potential effect the attack would have.
And he asked each of the officials on his team for their opinion.
In the end, he authorized a “precise tailored airstrike” to finish off the target.
Five days later, two Hellfire missiles were fired at the balcony of the safe house in Kabul at 6:18 am local time. “Multiple intelligence streams” confirmed that al-Zawahiri was dead.
Members of his family, who were in other areas of the house, were uninjured, the official said.
Biden, still in isolation in the White House residence with a rebound infection of covid-19, was informed when the operation began and when it concluded
CNN’s MJ Lee contributed to this report.