Al-Zawahri was long believed to have been living in Pakistan. That he was killed in Kabul is a testament to not only the porous border between the two countries but also to Al Qaeda’s decades-long use of facilities, houses, buildings and compounds throughout both countries, a U.S. official said. And unlike the relatively sleepy city of Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Bin Laden was killed by a commando raid in 2011, his successor apparently spent the last weeks of his life right smack in the Afghan capital.
Earlier this year, American intelligence sources learned that al-Zawahri’s wife, daughter and grandchildren had relocated to a house in Kabul, a senior administration official told reporters during a conference call on Monday night under White House ground rules requiring anonymity. The official said that the family had exercised longstanding terrorist tradecraft that was intended to prevent anyone from following them.
Still, the official said, American intelligence agencies grew increasingly confident that al-Zawahri was at the house as well. As they did in the case of Bin Laden, intelligence officials used different sources and methods to build a so-called pattern of life that confirmed his presence, the official said. Once al-Zawahri arrived at the location, American officials were never aware of him leaving, and he was observed for sustained periods on the balcony where he was ultimately struck.
Two top aides to Mr. Biden — Jonathan Finer, his deputy national security adviser, and Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, his homeland security adviser — were first briefed on the intelligence in April. Later other officials were brought in, including Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, who briefed the president.
On July 1, William J. Burns, the C.I.A. director; Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence; Christine Abizaid, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center; and other officials discussed the planned operation with Mr. Biden. They showed the president a model of the house al-Zawahri was staying in, and Mr. Biden asked questions about weather, construction materials, risk to civilians and other factors that could influence the success of the operation, the official said.
The strike was an important achievement for Mr. Biden, whose unpopularity in polls has jeopardized his party’s chances in the midterm elections this fall and prompted fellow Democrats to urge him to let someone else run in 2024. But such successes on the battlefield have had little lasting political benefit for his predecessors. Successful raids killing the head of the Islamic State and a top Iranian commander made no meaningful difference for Mr. Trump, and even the raid that killed Bin Laden resulted in only a temporary bump in the polls for President Barack Obama.