The Miniature Models Used by the CIA to Meticulously Plan High-Stakes Operations

July 19, 2023Matt Fratus

The model built by the CIA for the 2011 raid that killed Al-Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Photo courtesy of the CIA.

On the morning of July 31, 2022, Ayman al-Zawahiri was standing on the balcony of his home overlooking the Afghan capital of Kabul when he was suddenly obliterated by two missiles fired by an American drone flying overhead. For anyone still paying attention to the Global War on Terror, it was a significant event. Not only had al-Zawahiri been a top Al-Qaeda official and former deputy to 9/11 mastermind Usama Bin Laden, but his killing also revealed to the world that the United States military was still conducting counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan a year after it had withdrawn all of its ground forces from the country.

Weeks after the operation, the Central Intelligence Agency released declassified information and materials associated with the strike. These included a three-dimensional replica of al-Zawahiri’s home, which is now on display at the CIA’s private museum in Langley, Virginia. The tabletop-sized model of the three-story structure, replete with a tiny balcony and courtyard surrounded by barbed wire, had been presented to President Joe Biden as part of the CIA’s case  for carrying out the brazen mission. As vice president at the height of the War on Terror, Biden would have seen many models like it, including one of the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALs.

CIA model

A model of the house where a precision counterterrorism operation killed Al-Qaeda'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.

Since the 1960s, the CIA’s National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC) has produced hundreds of miniature models of enemy weapon systems, prisons, government buildings, safehouses, and various other types of structures. The models are used by defense strategists and top-level military commanders to plan and brief high-stakes operations. Depending on the scope of the operation, the models can be as small as a shoe box or big enough to cover the entire surface of a conference table. Each is meticulously crafted to be as close to the real thing as possible. To replicate finite details — like animals in a courtyard, security bars on windows, or deviations in terrain — modelers rely on intelligence reports and images captured by satellites and U-2 surveillance aircraft.

Kenny Lane, who spent more than 20 years working in the NPIC’s three-dimensional shop, told the LA Times in 1997 that he designed realistic models for a number of  high-profile operations. During his career, he built replicas of the infamous Son Tay prison that housed American prisoners of war in Vietnam, Manuel Noriega’s vacation home in Panama, and even the Kremlin. In 1985, he traveled to Moscow to see the actual Kremlin for the first time up close. “It was an unbelievable feeling, standing there and physically seeing what you had already modeled,” he recalled. “I felt like I had already been there.”

Related: U-2 Spy Plane: The CIA’s Most Elusive Eye in the Sky

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

More from Coffee or Die Magazine
Coffee Or Die Photo
From the Team Room to Team Room Design: An Operator’s Creative Journey

BRCC partners with Team Room Design for an exclusive T-shirt release!

Coffee Or Die Photo
Get Your Viking On: The Exclusive 30 Sec Out BRCC Shirt Club Design

Thirty Seconds Out has partnered with BRCC for an exclusive shirt design invoking the God of Winter.

Grizzly Forge BRCC shirt
Limited Edition: Grizzly Forge Blades on an Awesome BRCC Shirt

Lucas O'Hara of Grizzly Forge has teamed up with BRCC for a badass, exclusive Shirt Club T-shirt design featuring his most popular knife and tiomahawk.

BRCC Limited Edition Josh Raulerson Blackbeard Skull Shirt
From Naval Service to Creative Canvas: BRCC Veteran Artist Josh Raulerson

Coffee or Die sits down with one of the graphic designers behind Black Rifle Coffee's signature look and vibe.

Medal of Honor is held up.
Biden Will Award Medal of Honor to Army Helicopter Pilot Who Rescued Soldiers in Vietnam Firefight

Biden will award the Medal of Honor to a Vietnam War Army helicopter pilot who risked his life to save a reconnaissance team from almost certain death.

dear jack mandaville
Dear Jack: Which Historic Battle Would You Want To Witness?

Ever wonder how much Jack Mandaville would f*ck sh*t up if he went back in time? The American Revolution didn't even see him coming.

west point time capsule
West Point Time Capsule Yields Centuries-Old Coins

A nearly 200-year-old West Point time capsule that at first appeared to yield little more than dust contains hidden treasure, the US Military Academy said.

  • About Us
  • Privacy Policy
  • Careers
Contact Us
Contact Us
© 2024 Coffee or Die Magazine. All Rights Reserved