- Bernd Debusman Jr. and Chris Partridge
- BBC News
An hour or more after sunrise on July 31, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri came out and stood on the balcony of his house in the center of the Afghan capital, Kabul, reportedly a favorite practice of the Egyptian jihadist after prayer.
This was the last thing he did that day.
At exactly 06:18 local time (01:38 GMT), two missiles landed on the balcony of the house, and the strike killed Al-Zawahiri, aged 71, without harming his wife or daughter inside, and it appears that all the damage caused by the strike confined to the balcony.
How was it possible to carry out the strike with such accuracy? The United States has faced criticism in the past for misidentified air strikes, killing civilians.
However, the matter differed in this strike, as the type of missile used, as well as a careful study of Al-Zawahiri’s habits, were the key to the success of the mission, which made the way for its repetition and the implementation of more strikes.
The type of missile used was key to the mission, and U.S. officials said the drones are air-to-surface missiles that have become a staple of U.S. counterterrorism operations abroad for decades since the September 11, 2001 attacks.
The missile can be launched from different platforms, including helicopters, cars, ships, and fixed-wing aircraft, or from a drone, as in the case of the al-Zawahiri operation.
The United States is believed to have used a Hellfire missile to kill Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, in Baghdad in early 2020, and the British-born Islamic State jihadist known as “Jihadi John” in Syria in 2015.
Among the main reasons behind the frequent use of the Hellfire missile is its known accuracy.
When the missile is launched from a drone, the launcher, in an air-conditioned control room as far away as the United States, tracks a live feed of the target, captured by camera sensors on board the drone and transmitted via satellite.
Through a set of “target identification data”, which is displayed on the screen, the target can be “identified” by the camera and a laser beam can be directed at it, and once the missile is launched, tracking the path of this laser occurs until the missile hits its target.
The crew operating the drone must follow a number of clear sequential procedures before taking any action in order to reduce the risk of civilian casualties.
In previous US military strikes or CIA attacks, these procedures included the use of military lawyers to consult before ordering the shooting.
Professor William Banks, an expert on targeted killings and founder of the Syracuse University Institute for Security Policy and Law, said officials had to weigh the value of the target against the risk of civilian deaths.
He added that Al-Zawahiri’s strike “appears to be a typical application” of the operation.
“It seems that they were on this mission very careful and deliberately spotted him in a certain place and at a time when they could hit him alone without harming anyone else,” Banks said.
There is a belief, without confirmation, that the United States used a relatively unknown version of the Hellfire missile in the Zawahiri strike, the R9X version, which spreads six blades that penetrate the target using its kinetic energy.
In 2017, Abu Khair al-Masri, another al-Qaeda leader and one of al-Zawahiri’s deputies, was killed in Syria by a Hellfire R9X missile. Pictures of his car, after the strike, showed that the missile made a hole in the ceiling and tore its occupants, without any traces of an explosion or any other damage to the car.
The United States usually observed Al-Zawahiri’s exit to the balcony
Details of the intelligence collected by the United States prior to the strike in Kabul are still emerging.
However, in the aftermath of the strike, US officials said they had enough information to understand Zawahiri’s “lifestyle” at home, such as his habit of going out to the balcony.
This indicates that US intelligence agents have been monitoring the house for weeks, if not months.
Mark Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA official, told the BBC that a variety of intelligence tactics were likely to be used before the strike, including agents on the ground and intelligence signals.
Some also speculated that US drones or planes took turns monitoring the site for weeks or months, without being heard or seen from the ground.
“You need something that is almost certain that it’s on its own, and it also has to happen in a bet-free environment, which means no civilian casualties… It takes a lot of patience,” he said.
Polymeropoulos added that Al-Zawahiri’s strike benefited from decades of US intelligence experience in tracking al-Qaeda figures and other terrorist targets.
“We’re unique in this,” he said. “It’s something the US government has excelled at for over 20 years.”
Despite this, US operations of this kind do not always go according to plan. On August 29, 2021, a drone strike north of Kabul airport killed ten innocent people in a car instead of targeting local ISIS elements, and the Pentagon admitted that it had made a “tragic mistake.”
Bill Roggio, a distinguished professor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who has been tracking US drone strikes for many years, said Zawahiri’s operation was likely “much more difficult” than carrying out previous killings, given the absence of any US presence on the ground or any assets close to it.
Previous drone strikes in neighboring Pakistan, for example, have been launched from Afghanistan, while strikes against Syria have been carried out from friendly areas of Iraq.
He said, “(In those places) it was easy for the United States to get into those areas, because they had assets on the ground. And this[strike]is much more complicated, it’s the first strike against al-Qaeda or the Islamic State in Afghanistan since the United States left. This is uncommon.”
Can this blow be repeated?
Roggio said he “would not be surprised” if similar strikes were carried out against al-Qaeda targets in Afghanistan again.
He added: “Targets are not rare. It is very likely that the next potential leaders (in al-Qaeda) will move to Afghanistan, if they are not there already.”
“The question is whether the United States still has the ability to do this easily, or will it be a difficult process?” he said.
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