TThe balcony in Kabul where the al-Qaeda head was murdered was a place Dan Smock knew well. It belonged to him – when he was working in Afghanistan on a US government aid project – and the views were spectacular.
Smock enjoyed the start of the day overlooking the Afghan capital, like the world’s most wanted terrorist, from the villa they both called home, several years apart.
“According to reports, the CIA had information that he liked being on the balcony, and I thought, ‘Of course he would, it was a nice balcony,'” Smock said in a telephone interview.
“When the smog lifts in Kabul, you can see the mountains in the morning, and it’s next to an open field,” he said. He put up bamboo mats as a privacy screen, which was still there when an American drone shot down Ayman al-Zawahiri so that the terrace was not overlooked.
“It felt like you could hang out there without anyone noticing who it is unless someone was really paying attention. And clearly (this year) someone was.”
The cream-colored house, with sand-orange details and green-mirrored balcony walls, stood in a neighborhood famous for land grabs by the warlords and technocratic elite of the Afghan republic, which collapsed last summer.
As the war escalated, many of the villas they had crammed into small lots were rented by the NGOs and contractors, such as Smock’s employer.
Smock’s old house had a distinctive external lattice element between the floors that he first noticed in photos posted to social media over the weekend when it was hit by a suspected US drone strike. He was a little surprised and stunned to see the windows smashed in.
“When I saw it, I thought ‘that’s my old house,'” he said. “These villas are gaudy as hell, but unique and especially this one, it is built on such a narrow footprint.”
Then, on Monday night, US President Joe Biden told Americans that Al-Qaeda leader Zawahiri had been targeted.
And Smock, a US military veteran of the Iraq War, who also spent years as a civilian in Afghanistan, realized that he had lived in the same room as one of the men who planned the 9/11 attacks.
“It’s an incredibly surreal thing. Things change and things change quickly, but at that level? That’s a bit intense. You have public enemy number one, with a $25 million bounty on his head, literally living in the same space you lived in before,” he said.
“I keep running through the reality that he’s in the same rooms I was in.”
The CIA has created a detailed model of the house, US media reported, to help understand how a strike could affect the structure and whether Zawahiri could be killed without harming others.
The reason the area turned to US government contractors is probably the same reason it was seen as a good place to host the Al-Qaeda leader. It is essentially a quiet, gated neighborhood near the seat of power.
“At the [Ghazanfar] couch and spinneys [supermarket], there are two entrances on either side. If you control that, you control the whole neighborhood,” Smock says.
He described a tall, relatively narrow house, set back from the security wall behind a paved garden with shrubs. The main doors opened onto a staircase that rose through the center of the house, with strange acoustics.
“If you said something on the ground floor, it reverberated on all floors. It was like living in a loudspeaker box, even though you didn’t speak loudly.” Smock moved in with half a dozen colleagues – for security reasons, foreigners took jobs without family and were regularly accommodated in shared houses.
At the time, there was a kitchen on the ground floor, three bedrooms on the upper floors, and a small apartment space above, with a living room and private bathroom. Opposite was the door to the balcony where Zawahiri was murdered.
Biden hailed the drone strike as a counter-terrorism triumph, but for Smock, the fact that Zawahiri had been there underlined how horribly Washington and its allies had failed in Afghanistan.
After billions of dollars spent and years of promises to improve Afghans’ lives and make the US safe, Afghan girls are banned from high school, the economy collapses and the head of al-Qaeda directed his operation from the heart of the capital.
“[The western mission] failed so spectacularly that the people who took it over in Kabul were able to do an Airbnb for the CEO of al-Qaeda in a house run for more than a decade by USAid contracting dollars,” Smock said.
“It made me very sad. The news brought me the full weight of understanding. After all that effort, the rock has completely rolled off the hill.”