- Bernd Debusmann Jr and Chris Partridge
- BBC News
Just over an hour after sunrise on July 31, longtime al-Qaida leader, Ayman al-Zawahiriwalked to the balcony of a compound in central Kabul — reportedly the veteran Egyptian jihadist’s favorite after-prayer activity.
This would be the last thing I would do.
At 06:18 local time (01:38 GMT), two missiles hit the balcony, killing the 71-year-old man but leaving his wife and daughter unharmed inside. All the damage caused by the attack appears to be concentrated on the balcony.
How was it possible to attack with such precision? In the past, the US has come under fire for targeting errors in attacks that killed civilians.
But here’s how, in this case, the type of missile and a close study of Zawahiri’s habits made it possible—and why more attacks might occur.
The type of missile used was key — drone-fired Hellfires, according to US officials — a type of air-to-ground missile that became a fixture of US counter-terror operations abroad in the decades following the September 11, 2001 attacks. .
The missile can be fired from a variety of platforms, including helicopters, land vehicles, ships and fixed-wing aircraft — or, in Zawahiri’s case, from an unmanned drone.
The US is believed to have used Hellfires to kill Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad in early 2020, and the British Islamic State jihadist known as “Jihadi John” in Syria in 2015.
Among the main reasons for the recurring use of Hellfire is its accuracy.
When a missile is launched from a drone, a weapons operator — sometimes sitting in an air-conditioned control room as far away as the U.S. mainland — watches a live video stream of the target, which the sensors of the drone camera send via satellite.
Using a series of on-screen “aim holders”, the camera operator can “lock” the target and point a laser at it. Once the missile is fired, it follows the trajectory of that laser until it hits the target.
There are clear and sequential procedures that the team operating the drone must follow before taking action, to minimize the risk of civilian casualties. In previous attacks by the US and the CIA, the US intelligence agency, this has included calling in military lawyers to consult before issuing the firing order.
Professor William Banks, a specialist in targeted killings and founder of the Syracuse University Institute of Security Law and Policy, says authorities would have to balance the risk of civilian casualties against the value of the target.
The attack on Zawahiri, he said, “sounds like a model application” of the process.
“It looks like they were very careful and deliberate in this case to find (Zawahiri) in a place and at a time where they could just hit him and not hurt anyone else,” Banks says.
In the case of the attack on Zawahiri, it has been suggested, but not confirmed, that the US also used a relatively unknown version of the Hellfire — the R9X — which uses six blades to slice through targets using its kinetic energy.
In 2017, another al-Qaeda leader and one of Zawahiri’s deputies, Abu Khayr al-Masri, was reportedly killed with a Hellfire R9X in Syria. Photos taken of his vehicle after the attack showed the missile tore a hole in the roof and shredded its occupants, but with no signs of an explosion or any other destruction of the vehicle.
US tracked Zawahiri’s ‘balcony habit’
Details are still emerging about what kind of intelligence the US gathered before launching the attack on Kabul.
In the aftermath of the attack, however, US officials said they had enough information to understand Zawahiri’s “pattern of living” in the house — such as his habit of going out onto the porch.
This suggests that US spies had been watching the house for weeks, if not months.
Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA agent, told the BBC that it is likely that various intelligence methods were used before the attack, including spying in the field and intercepting signals.
There are also those who speculate that US drones or aircraft took turns monitoring the site for weeks or months, without being seen or heard from the ground.
“You need something that gives some certainty that it’s the individual, and it also needs to be done in an environment free of collateral damage, which means no civilian casualties,” he says.
“It takes a lot of patience.”
The attack on Zawahiri, adds Polymeropoulos, benefited from the US intelligence community’s decades of experience in tracking individual al-Qaeda leaders and other terrorist targets.
“We’re exceptional at that. It’s something the US government has become very good at in over 20 years,” he says.
“And Americans are much safer for that.”
However, American operations of this type do not always go according to plan. On 29 August 2021, a drone attack on a car north of Kabul airport, intended to target a local branch of the Islamic State, killed 10 innocent people. The Pentagon acknowledged that a “tragic mistake” had been made.
Bill Roggio, a researcher at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies who has tracked U.S. drone strikes for many years, believes the attack on Zawahiri was likely “much more difficult” to carry out than previous assassinations, given the absence of any presence. or US government sources nearby.
Previous drone strikes against neighboring Pakistan, for example, came from Afghanistan, while strikes against Syria would have been conducted from allied territory in Iraq.
“[Nesses casos] it was much easier for the US to get to these areas. They had sources on the ground. This one was much more complicated,” he reckons.
“It’s the first attack against al-Qaeda or Islamic State in Afghanistan since the US pulled out. It’s not a common occurrence.”
Can it happen again?
Roggio says he “wouldn’t be surprised” if similar attacks against al-Qa’ida targets happened again in Afghanistan.
“There is no shortage of targets,” he notes.
“The potential next leaders [da Al-Qaeda] they will most likely move to Afghanistan if they are not already there.”
“The question is whether the US still has the ability to do this easily or will it be a difficult process,” he adds.
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