Killing Zawahiri: How the CIA Hunts Monsters

Hello, and happy Thursday. 

Unless you live under a rock, you know the CIA successfully killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri over the weekend in Kabul, Afghanistan. Zawahiri was evil. He was a mass murderer responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans and of thousands more innocents—including fellow Muslims—around the world. It was Zawahiri’s book, Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner, that argued that violent jihad against the enemies of Islam is the individual responsibility of every true believer, and not just the responsibility of Islamic governments. This laid the foundation of al-Qaeda and of the countless atrocities its members have and will commit. My theology says this man’s current state is too terrible to contemplate, and so I’m slow to say that I’m “happy” for his death. However, Zawahiri made his choices, and I believe our government’s killing of him was just.

And that’s what I want us to talk about this week—the process of killing Zawahiri. Not to indulge a morbid fascination or to gloat over a fallen enemy. But to explain how our government wields the sword of justice in the fight against terrorism. But, before going further, I should say that I have no special information on the specific operation to take out Zawahiri. While at one point I was the Defense Intelligence Agency’s lead analyst for al-Qaeda senior leadership, I’ve been out of that game for a long time. I’m reading the same information in the press that you are. But I do have insight into these events, and this brings me to my second caveat: The description below is a general one. There are details that I am omitting and deliberately leaving opaque to protect intelligence sources and methods. This is important because we need the CIA to remain effective in hunting our enemies.

Having said all of that, I’d like to walk you through the authorities, the process, and the technology of killing Zawahiri. 

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