Ayman al-Zawahiri: How a CIA Drone Strike Nearly Killed the Head of Al-Qaeda

Zawahiri Bin Laden
Osama bin Laden, left, sits with his adviser and successor Ayman al-Zawahri, on November 10, 2001. Zawahiri, an Egyptian, is now the head of Al-Qaeda. REUTERS/Hamid Mir/Editor/Ausaf Newspaper for Daily Dawn

Updated | He has been the forgotten man in the West's desperate campaign to obliterate the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). He didn't even merit a cameo in the celebratory coverage of Osama bin Laden's death at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALs in 2011. For several years, he has been described as the leader of a spent force.

Yet Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's mentor and successor, remains a key player in an attack threat to America that retired Marine Corps General John Kelly, the U.S. homeland security secretary, says is "worse today than what we experienced 16 years ago on 9/11." And if officials in the Donald Trump administration have their way, al-Zawahiri's name will soon be as familiar to the world as bin Laden's once was.

The White House signaled a new, tougher approach to eliminating al-Zawahiri and his militant allies in early April with the appointment of Lisa Curtis to head the South Asia desk for the National Security Council. A well-known former CIA analyst, congressional staffer and foreign policy hawk in Washington, D.C's think-tank circuit, Curtis caused a stir in February when she co-authored a piece arguing that the U.S. "should...hold Pakistan accountable for the activities of all terrorist groups on its soil."

Related: The Anatomy of a CIA Assassination

Al-Qaeda's Zawahiri
Al Qaeda's Ayman al-Zawahri speaks from an unknown location, in this still image taken from video uploaded on a social media website June 8, 2011. He has called on supporters to reject ISIS and put their backing behind the Afghan Taliban. Social Media Website via Reuters/File Photo

Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) has been protecting the Egyptian-born al-Zawahiri, a trained surgeon, since U.S. forces evicted Al-Qaeda from Afghanistan in late 2001, several authoritative sources tell Newsweek. His most likely location today, they say: Karachi, the teeming port city of 26 million people on the Arabian Sea. "Like everything about his location, there's no positive proof," says Bruce Riedel, a 30-year CIA veteran who was the top adviser on South Asia and the Middle East for the past four U.S. presidents. "There are pretty good indications, including some of the material found in Abbottabad," where bin Laden was slain, "that point in that direction," he adds. "This would be a logical place to hide out, where he would feel pretty comfortable that the Americans can't come and get him."

Karachi would be a "very hard" place for the U.S. to conduct the kind of commando raid that got bin Laden on May 2, 2011, Riedel says. The heavily policed city, the site of a major nuclear complex, also hosts Pakistani naval and air bases, where forces could quickly be scrambled to intercept American raiders. Plus, bin Laden, al-Zawahiri's late protégé, remains a popular figure among Karachi's millions of poor, devout Muslims, who could well emerge from their homes and shops to pin down the Americans.

"If he was in someplace along the border with Afghanistan, I think the temptation would be enormous to go after him," says Riedel, who now heads the Brooking Institution's Intelligence Project in Washington, D.C. "But in Karachi, that would be stunning and very difficult."

In the first week of January 2016, the Obama administration went after al-Zawahiri with a drone strike in Pakistan's remote Shawal Valley, which abuts the Afghan border in a Federally Administered Tribal Area, multiple sources tell Newsweek. But he survived, says a senior militant leader in the region, who, like all Pakistani sources, demanded anonymity in exchange for discussing politically sensitive issues. "The drone hit next to the room where Dr. Zawahiri was staying," the man told Newsweek. "The shared wall collapsed, and debris from the explosion showered on him and broke his glasses, but luckily he was safe."

The man added that "four of Zawahiri's security guards were killed on the spot and one was injured but died later." He said al-Zawahiri had "left the targeted room to sleep just 10 minutes ahead of the missile that hit that room." (The CIA declines to comment on drone strikes.)

The Al-Qaeda leader had been moving about the Federally Administered Tribal Areas since at least 2005, according to a forthcoming book, The Exile: The Stunning Inside Story of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda in Flight, by longtime British investigative reporters Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy. "Married to a local Pashtun girl, [al-Zawahiri] had been given a new home, a large mud-brick compound up in the hills" in Damadola, they write.

In July 2015, al-Zawahiri was in the Shawal Valley, often in the company of one of his three wives and his top assistant, Saif al-Adel, a former bomb expert and colonel in the Egyptian special forces, according to the militant leader who talked with Newsweek. Now 66 and frail, al-Zawahiri has survived "several" drone attacks since 2001, an Afghan Taliban leader says, but is "worried and sad about the overall situation of Islamic groups." One of the Taliban's former ministers adds that al-Zawahiri and Al-Qaeda are "no longer welcome" in areas controlled by his group because it's engaged in peace negotiations with the Afghan government and doesn't want to be seen as "a threat to world peace."

Closed out of the tribal areas, al-Zawahiri was "moved to Karachi under direction of 'the black leg,'" the Afghan Taliban's code name for the ISI, according to the group leader who spoke with Newsweek. And he may well have taken al-Adel, indicted in the U.S. in connection with the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, with him.

Other close followers of the militants place Zawahiri back in Pakistan proper in 2014. Michael S. Smith II, who closely tracks jihadi communications, says he was told by "a European intelligence source" that Zawahiri had been living for some time in Rawalpindi, Pakistan's fourth largest city and the headquarters of the Pakistani army and air force. Because his detection there by U.S. intelligence would have created another political crises for the government, following on the raid in nearby Abbottabad that killed bin Laden three years earlier, "Pakistani intelligence officials wanted al-Zawahiri to move to another country," Smith tells Newsweek.

Levy and Scott-Clark say that Iran took care of him. "There's no proof, but half a dozen clerics, former fighters in the top tier in Pakistan, Jordan and Yemen, as well as those close to Osama bin Laden's surviving family members, have told us that [Iran's] Quds Force has continued to shelter Al-Qaeda and its leader Zawahiri..." Levy tells Newsweek. Such reports make sense, he adds, because Karachi "became really hot after news broke that [Afghan Taliban leader] Mullah Omar had been concealed there…" Despite the murderous rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites, he adds, "Iran has emerged as the most pragmatic of players," maintaining "regular contact with the Al-Qaeda military council in Syria and elsewhere."

Smith says that elements of Pakistani intelligence were indeed anxious to get Zawahiri out of Pakistan, "due to concerns about how jihadi groups would respond if another Al-Qaeda leader ended up dead in Pakistan—even if by natural causes." But he says that while "Iran-based smuggling networks" could ship Zawahiri out of the country, it would have been "certainly be more practical to move him to the FATA," Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Area abutting Afghanistan. At least for awhile, until the drone strikes got too close.

A former top Pakistani official who maintains close ties with the Islamabad government said only that al-Zawahiri is "in a large Pakistani city." Karachi "makes sense" as a sanctuary, he tells Newsweek, given its widespread sympathies for militant Islam, congested 19th-century streets and large Pakistani military presence. But he says he was "100 percent" sure that bin Laden's 26-year-old son, Hamza, a rising power in Al-Qaeda, is also in the country under ISI protection. (Abid Saeed, a spokesman for Pakistan's embassy in Washington, D.C., called the allegations "part of a vicious media campaign" and said "the achievements of Pakistan against Al-Qaeda are unparalleled and proven.")

Hamza, the 11th son of the Al-Qaeda founder, emerged last year as the "emir," or commander, of the group, but analysts believe he was groomed by the elderly, abrasive al-Zawahiri to be the inspiring face of the organization. Hamza turned out to be ambitious: In a July 2016 video, he vowed revenge against the U.S. for the assassination of his father. In January, the State Department officially named him a "specially designated global terrorist" and announced sanctions designed to isolate him economically and geographically.

For decades, Washington put up with Islamabad's protection of Al-Qaeda, the bin Ladens and the Afghan Taliban (which the ISI sees as a bulwark against Indian influence in Afghanistan) because it viewed Pakistan as an ally, however inconsistent, in the U.S. "global war on terrorism." But Islamabad's coddling of Al-Qaeda, its unrestrained production of nuclear weapons and its continuing attacks on U.S.-friendly India with ISI-backed militant groups has frayed its ties to Washington, especially with the Trump administration.

In her attention-grabbing February article for the conservative Hudson Institute, co-authored with Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., Curtis argued that it was time to "avoid viewing and portraying Pakistan as an ally. The new U.S. administration should recognize that Pakistan is not an American ally." Now Curtis is the top White House official responsible for Pakistan, as well as India.

Islamabad can no longer be allowed to play a "double game" with Washington, shielding anti-U.S. terrorists with one hand while accepting billions in aid with the other and enjoying the status of a quasi-official ally, she and Haqqani wrote. "For too long, the U.S. has given Pakistan a pass on its support for some terrorist groups based in Pakistan, including those used against India," they wrote. "The U.S. should no longer settle for Pakistan's excuses for delaying a full-throttle crackdown on these terrorist groups and should instead hold Pakistan accountable for the activities of all terrorist groups on its soil."

414_Trump Palm Beach
President Donald Trump gestures as he arrives at Palm Beach International Airport in West Palm Beach, Florida, on April 13, 2017. Yuri Gripas/REUTERS

The administration has yet to announce its new posture toward Islamabad, but a likely first step will be further cuts in direct U.S. military assistance, which peaked at $1.6 billion in 2011, unless Pakistan changes its ways. In 2013, the Obama administration "withheld $300 million in military reimbursements for Pakistan because of its failure to crack down on the Haqqani network," responsible for killing hundreds of Americans in Afghanistan, Curtis and Haqqani wrote, but Washington shouldn't hesitate to apply the whip further. If Islamabad's political leaders cannot, or refuse to, bring the ISI under control and turn over al-Zawahiri, Hamza bin Laden and other militant figures, Washington could go nuclear on Pakistan—diplomatically speaking—by declaring it a state sponsor of terrorism. In March, Republican U.S. Representative Ted Poe of Texas reintroduced his bill to do just that.

There's no sign of changes in Pakistan's behavior, says Riedel. Islamabad's posture on al-Zawahiri remains as it was on Osama bin Laden: "'We don't know him, he's never been here, and we'll never let him back in,' or something like that. Their official position up until May 2011 was Osama bin Laden has never been in Pakistan, and moreover he's dead."

Under the influence of Curtis, and with so many ex-generals populating the administration, Trump is likely to tell Pakistan that "we're not going to tolerate safe havens, and that means we'll be prepared to attack them with unilateral means," Riedel says. The number of drone strikes has steadily dropped in recent years, from 25 in 2014, to 13 in 2015, to three last year, according to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Some critics argue the strikes have done little permanent damage to Al-Qaeda and other militant groups while producing civilian casualties that mainly fuel hatred for the United States. Michael Hayden, who quarterbacked the strikes as CIA director from 2006 to 2009, sharply disagrees. "I think it's fair to say that the targeted killing program has been the most precise and effective application of firepower in the history of armed conflict," he wrote last year.

Something better work against Al-Qaeda, because it remains a potent force with the ambition and capability to launch another spectacular attack against the United States, says Riedel and other sources consulted by Newsweek. Riedel points to a 2014 plot by Al-Qaeda to place sympathizers on a Pakistani frigate, hijack it and use it to "attack American naval ships in the Indian Ocean, or maybe Indian ships, or maybe both." Imagine if a Pakistani frigate packed with explosives—or a nuclear device—"sank an American aircraft carrier," he says. "That would change world history." Perhaps al-Zawahiri and Hamza bin Laden aren't thinking that big, but the 2014 plot, eventually disrupted by Pakistani security, showed "their aspiration was enormous."

"The intention of the operation was much more than blowing up a train or running people over with a Mack truck or something," Riedel says. "This was intended to have geopolitical consequences, much like September 11 had geopolitical consequences." According to a Western diplomat interviewed by Newsweek, who asked for anonymity in exchange for discussing sensitive information, Al-Qaeda also remains interested a carrying out attacks "related to airlines."

Al-Zawahiri has been "surprisingly quiet about Trump," Riedel says. And he vows he will never be captured alive, says the Islamist militant who talked with him months ago in the tribal areas. He's in some large Pakistani city now, protected by the ISI, with a "desperate last wish," says his militant friend, for one last big attack against America "before folding his eyes."

How Trump will get Pakistan to turn on him is anyone's guess—and may never happen. The White House did not respond to a request for comment. But with Curtis moving from the think tanks to the White House, the price Islamabad pays for harboring him will undoubtedly rise.

With reporting by Newsweek in South Asia

Update: This story has been updated with additional views on Zawahiri's whereabouts from Michael S. Smith II and co-authors Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy. It has also been corrected to say that a CIA drone strike targeting Zawahiri was carried out in January 2016, not 2017.