CIA unveils model of al-Qaida leader al-Zawahri’s hideout

Sep 24, 2022, 2:26 PM | Updated: Sep 26, 2022, 9:50 am
A model of the house where a precision counterterrorism operation killed al-Qaida's leader Ayman al...

A model of the house where a precision counterterrorism operation killed al-Qaida's leader Ayman al-Zawahri is displayed below a rifle used by Michael Spann, the first American killed in Afghanistan, in the refurbished museum at the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters building in Langley, Va., on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)

(AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)

McLEAN, Virginia (AP) — The CIA has revealed a model of Ayman al-Zawahri’s safe house, used to brief President Joe Biden about the al-Qaida leader’s whereabouts before the agency killed him in a drone strike in Afghanistan.

Shortly after al-Zawahri’s death, White House officials released a photo showing Biden talking to CIA Director William Burns with a closed wooden box on the table in front of them. Now, the contents of the box — a model depicting a white-walled home with at least five stories and three partially obscured balconies — are on display at the CIA Museum inside the agency’s Virginia headquarters.

The museum is closed to the public and access is generally limited to the agency’s employees and guests. The CIA allowed journalists to tour the museum, newly refurbished in time for the agency’s 75th anniversary, as part of a broader effort to showcase its history and achievements.

Most of the exhibits took years or decades to declassify. The al-Zawahri model home is the rare artifact that had been used by intelligence officers just weeks beforehand.

Al-Zawahri was killed in late July, nearly a year after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan ending a two-decade war in which the CIA had a central role. The agency sent the first American forces two weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Two decades later, it pulled out intelligence assets and assisted in the chaotic evacuation of thousands of Americans and Afghan allies.

The Biden administration has said the strike shows it retains what it calls an “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism capacity in Afghanistan. Opponents of the administration and some analysts question whether al-Zawahri’s presence in a Kabul neighborhood suggests extremist groups like al-Qaida or the Islamic State are growing stronger under the Taliban, who now rule the country.

The strike was particularly meaningful for the CIA, which lost seven employees in trying to find al-Zawahri, a key plotter of the Sept. 11 attacks who was then al-Qaida’s second-in-command.

They were killed when a Jordanian doctor who pretended to have information about al-Zawahri carried out a 2009 suicide bombing at a base in Khost, Afghanistan. The doctor was working for al-Qaida.

On display near the model of al-Zawahri’s home are seven stars honoring the CIA employees slain at Khost. The stars were previously part of a memorial in Afghanistan that was taken down as the U.S. withdrew.

Other newly revealed artifacts include concept drawings for the fake film created as part of a 1980 operation to rescue American diplomats from Iran, the subject of the 2012 movie “Argo” starring Ben Affleck. There are also crew uniforms and other items from the Glomar Explorer, the Howard Hughes-built ship that served as cover for a 1970s mission to surface a sunken Soviet submarine carrying nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. (The story on the front page of the Los Angeles Times exposing the operation is reproduced on a nearby museum wall.)

The museum also includes some information on the agency’s darker moments, including its role in the ultimately false assertions that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion, as well as the exposure and execution of several key spies the U.S. had in the Soviet Union.

Janelle Neises, the museum’s deputy director, says a running agency joke about the collection is that for most people, it’s “the greatest museum you’ll never see.”

The CIA wants to use its history to engage more with the public, albeit on the narrow terms one might expect of an intelligence service. The number of annual visitors to the museum, for example, is classified. Among the known guests are U.S. lawmakers, officers from other law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and foreign officials.

But CIA employees post about some of the museum’s roughly 600 exhibits on social media. The agency also recently started a podcast with Burns, the CIA director, as its first guest.

A primary goal of the museum is to reinforce lessons from the agency’s successes and failures for the current workforce, Neises said. Some CIA veterans who served in the missions depicted in the museum donated artifacts to the collection. But the agency is now hiring officers in their twenties who are too young to remember the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“The idea here is as you’re going to lunch or as you’re going to a meeting, leave 10 minutes early, leave 20 minutes early, and just take the time to look at one section and really learn about your history,” Neises said.

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              The seal of Central Intelligence Agency is seen in the lobby the headquarters building in Langley, Va., on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
            
              A model of the house where a precision counterterrorism operation killed al-Qaida's leader Ayman al-Zawahri is displayed in the refurbished museum at the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters building in Langley, Va., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
            
              A model of the house where a precision counterterrorism operation killed al-Qaida's leader Ayman al-Zawahri is displayed in the refurbished museum at the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters building in Langley, Va., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
            
              A model of the house where a precision counterterrorism operation killed al-Qaida's leader Ayman al-Zawahri is displayed in the refurbished museum at the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters building in Langley, Va., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
            
              A model of the house where a precision counterterrorism operation killed al-Qaida's leader Ayman al-Zawahri is displayed below a rifle used by Michael Spann, the first American killed in Afghanistan, in the refurbished museum at the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters building in Langley, Va., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
            
              The Memorial Wall is seen in the lobby of the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters building in Langley, Va., on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
            
              A ceiling detail in the Central Intelligence Agency's refurbished museum in the headquarters building in Langley, Va., on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
            
              Deputy Director for the Museum in the Central Intelligence Agency Janelle Neises talks about the "Argo" exhibit in the refurbished museum in the CIA headquarters building in Langley, Va., on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
            
              Deputy Director for the Museum in the Central Intelligence Agency Janelle Neises describes a model of the compound where U.S. forces located and killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that is on display in the refurbished museum in the CIA headquarters building in Langley, Va., on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
            
              An AKM rifle that was found near the body of Usama Bin Laden during the raid on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, is on display with a brick from the compound in the refurbished museum in the CIA headquarters building in Langley, Va., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
            
              An early version of the Central Intelligence Agency's seal signed by President Truman is on display at the agency's museum in the headquarters building in Langley, Va. on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
            
              A display showing the covers of the President's Daily Briefing is seen at Central Intelligence Agency's newly refurbished museum in the headquarters building in Langley, Va., on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
            
              A display showing a photo of Valerie Plame is seen at Central Intelligence Agency's newly refurbished museum in the headquarters building in Langley, Va. on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
            
              A mockup of the Berlin Tunnel the Central Intelligence Agency used for Operation Gold in on display in the refurbished museum in the CIA headquarters building in Langley, Va., on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
            
              Copies of the President's Intelligence Checklist (PICL) from the day of President John F. Kennedy's assassination are displayed at the Central Intelligence Agency's newly refurbished museum in the headquarters building in Langley, Va., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
            
              Director for the Central Intelligence Agency Museum Rob Byer poses for a photo in the newly refurbished museum at the CIA headquarters building in Langley, Va., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
            
              The entrance sign to the Central Intelligence Agency's refurbished museum in the headquarters building in Langley, Va., on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
            
              A Ruger M77 bolt action rifle brandished by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein is displayed along with the Saddam's leather jacket when he was captured by American forces is on display at the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters building's refurbished museum in Langley, Va., on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
            
              A mockup of a pigeon with a camera attached is on display at the Central Intelligence Agency's museum in the headquarters building in Langley, Va. on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
            
              A junior officer disguise kit is on display at the Central Intelligence Agency's museum in the headquarters building in Langley, Va. on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
            
              Deputy Director for the Museum in the Central Intelligence Agency Janelle Neises gives a group of journalists a tour of the refurbished museum in the CIA headquarters building in Langley, Va., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
            
              A gold AK-47 that belonged to Saddam Hussein along with an Iraqi sniper rifle is on display at the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters building's refurbished museum in Langley, Va., on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
            
              Deputy Director for the Museum in the Central Intelligence Agency Janelle Neises talks about the CIA's Soviet spies exhibit in the refurbished museum in the CIA headquarters building in Langley, Va., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
            
              A display for the Central Intelligence Agency's work in Afghanistan shows the seven stars that were part of a larger memorial to the seven CIA officers killed in the line of duty on Dec. 30, 2009, at Forward Operation Base Chapman is seen in the newly refurbished museum in the CIA's headquarters building in Langley, Va., on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
            
              A model of the house where a precision counterterrorism operation killed al-Qaida's leader Ayman al-Zawahri is displayed below a rifle used by Michael Spann, the first American killed in Afghanistan, in the refurbished museum at the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters building in Langley, Va., on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)

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CIA unveils model of al-Qaida leader al-Zawahri’s hideout