After a lethal assault in 2009, the CIA went on a private hunt for Zawahiri

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It was one of the darkest days in CIA history: Seven operatives were killed after a rogue informant was lured into a deadly trap. In the years since, memories of the 2009 disaster in eastern Afghanistan have helped fuel the intelligence agency’s global search for an unrelated terrorist believed to have played a key role in the officers’ deaths.

That terrorist was Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda who was killed on Saturday, in a strike carried out by the CIA. Nothing in official US statements describes Zawahiri’s death as payback for American losses in Khost, Afghanistan, some 12 years earlier. But many former and ex-intelligence officers say that’s exactly how it felt.

The CIA, as is standard practice, has not publicly acknowledged any part in the firing of the missile that struck Zawahiri as he stood on his balcony in an apartment building in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. But from Monday, confirmation the death of the 71-year-old Egyptian has prompted an emotional response within the agency’s Langley, Va., headquarters, and also with former colleagues, friends and family members of those killed or injured in 2009.

“This is a very personal moment,” he said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA operations division officer who served with some of the five men and two women from the agency killed at Camp Chapman, a CIA base on the outskirts of Khost from which the agency ran covert missions against al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. . In addition to the seven CIA operatives, a senior Jordanian intelligence officer and an Afghan driver were killed.

Polymeropoulos described the deaths at Camp Chapman as “the most striking example of the tragic costs of the fight against terrorism.”

Many current and former CIA officers marked the news of Zawahiri’s death with social media posts honoring the CIA officers and security staff officers who died in the Khost attack, the deadliest against the CIA since eight employees were killed in a bombing at the US Embassy. in Beirut in 1983.

“Just remember. They are heroes,” former CIA director and Gen. Michael N. Hayden retired wrote in a Twitter post. In an interview, Hayden recalled working with two officers who were killed, Khost base chief Jennifer Matthews and Elizabeth Hanson, and learning of their deaths while at CIA headquarters on the day of the attack.

“I went outside to my car and cried,” Hayden said.

CIA Director William J. Burns, in response to a question from the Washington Post, did not comment on the details of the operation against Zawahiri but said that the proceedings were “very personal for the CIA”.

Zawahiri was seen on his balcony. The CIA was ready to kill him.

“While looking for Ayman al-Zawahiri, there was a brutal attack on the lives of seven CIA officers in Khost in 2009,” Burns said. “While terrorism remains a real challenge, Zawahiri’s removal reduces that threat and provides a measure of justice.”

Zawahiri’s role in an incredibly complex al-Qaeda operation against the CIA base was accounted for i 2011 book free, and is also described in articles and essays about the attack. The main figure was Jordanian national Humam al-Balawi, a doctor who got into trouble in his home country for posting pro-al-Qaeda messages on social media. After being questioned by the Jordanian intelligence service, he was persuaded to become a counter-terrorist informant. Ultimately, Balawi agreed to travel to Pakistan to gather information that could aid the CIA’s search for Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders.

After disappearing for months, Balawi emerged in late 2009 with a startling claim: He had established high-level contacts within the community of al-Qaeda militants hiding in the lawless tribal region along the border between Afghanistan and the Pakistan.

As proof, Balawi began providing evidence of his interactions—including cell phone videos of senior al-Qaeda leaders—to his Jordanian handlers, who passed the information on to the CIA. Jordan’s Directorate General of Intelligence regularly works with US counterparts to track and screen terrorist operations around the world, and both countries contributed closely to the Balawi case.

By late December 2009, the CIA wanted to meet with a Jordanian spy, a potential breakthrough in the agency’s long-dormant search for bin Laden and other terrorist leaders behind the 9/11 attacks. September, 2001. With similar reluctance, Balawi agreed to a meeting at the CIA base in Khost. Then, in a move that ensured an enthusiastic reception from the Americans, he provided a fun new detail: the doctor was providing medical care to Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s Number 2 at the time.

Balawi shared vague details about Zawahiri’s physical condition, including his various chronic maladies and scars from years of torture in Egyptian prisons. The details matched what the CIA already knew about Zawahiri, and seemed to confirm that Balawi was in close contact with the al-Qaeda representative.

The meeting was set for December 30, 2009, and many CIA counterterrorism experts are scheduled to attend. Balawi arrived in a car and, due to the high sensitivity of the meeting, the CIA postponed any physical search of the informant until he was well inside the agency’s compound.

Balawi was indeed on a mission, but his loyalty was to al-Qaeda, not to Jordan or the CIA. Under his blanket he hid a bomb made of powerful C4 explosives. After coming within feet of the CIA team, he detonated the device.

The attack led to an extensive investigation and prompted numerous operational changes, including strengthening counterintelligence defenses. Agency officials have not been able to determine the full extent of Zawahiri’s involvement in the planning of the 2009 attack, but at least he allowed himself to be the bait of a sophisticated operation that allowed a suicide bomber to enter an ultra-secure CIA facility and the -secret, current and former officials said.

Zawahiri’s path to global terrorist leader

That’s why many in the CIA saw Zawahiri’s death as justice delivered, after years of waiting. On Tuesday, a printed copy of a Washington Post article was placed on the grave of Matthews, the Khost base chief who was killed in 2009. “US kills al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in drone strike in Kabul,” read the headline.

The photo appeared in Tuesday’s Twitter post by Kristin Wooda former CIA officer who worked with Matthews.

“Rest in peace, sister,” the tweet read.

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