Dan Smock loved the view from the balcony of the house in Kabul he shared with fellow American aid workers. It looked out over the rooftops of the Afghan capital, with stunning snowcapped mountains in the distance. Smock liked it so much that he says he “hung out on that balcony a lot” during his time in Afghanistan.
Someone else who came to appreciate that same view was 9/11 plotter and al Qaeda boss Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was taking the air on the same balcony early Sunday morning when he was killed in an American drone strike.
Osama bin Laden’s successor is believed to have been shredded by a special blade-wielding Hellfire missile while alone on his balcony. His fateful daily habit of reading on the scenic terrace of what he presumed to be his safe house was ultimately used to establish a “pattern of life” in the operation which killed him, according to reports.
But long before Zawahiri, 71, lived out his final moments there, the same balcony was an American haven in the heart of Kabul.
“It’s kind of a weird thing,” Smock, who now lives in Texas, told The Daily Beast. “I talked to a few people about it, the people I used to live there with. We’ve all been kind of looking at some of our old pictures that we were able to dig up. Most of them are blurry or full of drunk people but, you know.”
The 48-year-old says he lived in the house between 2012 and 2014. At the time, Smock was working on USAID-funded projects in Afghanistan. He has happy memories of living in the building with colleagues in a secure bubble insulated from the dangers that beset Kabul at the time. “We called it the ‘Kabubble,’” Smock says. “It got to a point where you really couldn’t leave, so it’s just all of you hanging out together. It gets to be very much this sort of college-frat-party type of experience, because I can’t go anywhere, I’ve got nothing else to do, and we can get alcohol, right?”
So imagine Smock’s surprise this week when it turned out that not only was his former frat house being used as a hideout for the world’s most wanted terrorist, but the drone strike targeting him hit the same balcony where Smock once whiled away the hours. “The first thing was like, ‘That’s weird. Huh. Shit. Of course he stood on that balcony—it’s a good balcony,” Smock, whose link to the house was first reported by The Guardian, said of his initial reaction. “Then it’s kind of weird. We literally funded that building and then we had to leave and then he’s there.”
At first, Iraq veteran Smock wasn’t sure if it could really be the same place he’d been put up in by the U.S. government. But soon the details that emerged in reports of the assassination left him without any doubt. The strike took place on a building in the Sherpur neighborhood located behind the Ghazanfar bank. Photos of the building after the attack also included distinctive lattice-like features that Smock immediately recognized. It didn’t take long for Smock to conclude: “OK, yeah, that’s the house. I probably lived on the same floor he did.”
During his time there, Smock wrote a blog called Sunny in Kabul and even used a view from the balcony as its header image. He now writes fiction based on his experiences in Afghanistan, and the absurdity of this week’s events, he says, are too good to miss out. He’s enjoyed imagining the poor real estate agent tasked with finding a new tenant for his former home. “How’s he going to post this fucker on Zillow?” Smock says. “He’s going to have to disclose the fact that, you know, al Qaeda died on the balcony.”
His personal feelings about his former home being attacked aside, Smock is skeptical about the value of operations like the one used to assassinate Zawahiri. “It’s very much like Sisyphus rolling that fucking rock up the hill and it’s finally just rolled back over us,” Smock says. “The thing that’s frustrating for me to see is that we’re still playing the same game of whack-a-mole. We’re still doing the high-value target thing. We’re still thinking: ‘If we kill the top guy, that will fix it.’ And it doesn’t.”
But the abiding feeling for the former U.S. government contractor is just the weirdness of it all. “It’s a very surreal experience to kind of full-circle go: ‘Oh, yeah, the guy who started the GWOT [global war on terror] lived at my house,’” he says.