The operation that killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri with a drone strike in a posh Kabul neighbourhood was partially the work of a US military unit so clandestine that its actual name is a state secret, according to three NATO officials briefed on the operation.
“It was a huge operation led by the CIA as is typically the case for something like this and everyone plays a specific role,” said a senior NATO military official who works closely with the US on counter-terrorism. “But at the tip of the operation are the people who have to get actual eyes on the target, and that’s where [Task Force] Orange comes in.”
Founded in 1980 and initially called the Intelligence Support Activity before its name became a secret and started being frequently changed, the unit works within the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), and is charged with collecting real-time intelligence to prepare for specifically planned operations. Within JSOC, the unit is currently known as Task Force Orange.
“The CIA can tell you a lot about a country and the personalities of its government and opposition, but they’re not designed to figure out things like is there a specific person in that specific house, which way do the doors open, how high are the fences,” said the NATO official, who was not authorised to speak publicly. “That’s what Orange does to prepare for an operation, whether it’s a drone strike like with [Zawahri] or sending in a team of shooters as with [Osama] bin Laden or Baghdadi. They collect the specific details and they do it in person from close up, it’s probably the closest thing in real life to that Jason Bourne shit.”
The announcement of the killing said that US intelligence had observed Zawahri’s family relocating from the tribal belt in Pakistan to Kabul in April this year. Rumors that the Americans were tipped off by the Taliban or its powerful Haqqani faction as part of some secret deal were described by two officials as “plausible.”
“This is where it gets complicated, to be honest,” said an intelligence official from the EU country who declined to be named. “The US controls a lot of money the Taliban need to run the country and while I am sure Zawahri had his supporters, it really only takes one person to decide they’d like $25 million or whatever the reward is. So it could have been a policy by the Taliban but the Americans have left a powerful intelligence apparatus.”
They added: “If it was betrayal, the operation would still need to be done the normal way, which is in April when the family moved, operators from Orange and CIA would have established a presence in the neighbourhood to be able to continually monitor the building and establish what they call a ‘pattern of life.”
The family would have been carefully monitored on any electronic devices, although it’s doubtful Zawahri allowed any devices near him or he’d have been killed years earlier, and by carefully watching to determine how many people lived in the home, where they did their shopping, how they dispose of trash that might contain DNA evidence, and monitor purchasing patterns in local markets for signals that could be useful in determining a picture of life inside the house.
“Then Zawahiri himself shows up and it becomes a case of how to get him without getting anyone else,” said the first official. “Orange and CIA personnel would then watch to see if he ever left the house, which he did not, but they established a pattern that he would go out on his balcony every morning for a few hours.”
And using a drone-launched missile that eschews explosives for sword-like blades to prevent collateral damage, at 6:18AM am on Saturday the 30th of July, the pattern of life became one of death.