Two Hellfire missiles with long blades meant to kill targets with kinetic energy to minimize collateral damage were fired on July 30 to take out al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri
When two Hellfire missiles killed al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri on a balcony of a house he was hiding out in downtown Kabul on July 30, it culminated months-long operation that began earlier this year. Zawahiri was in hiding for years and the operation to locate and kill him required carefully patient and persistent work. American intelligence agencies spent months determining al-Zawahri’s identity after tracking him down to the safe house following protracted intelligence collection.
Before killing him, intelligence officials used different methods and sources to build what is known as the pattern of life confirming Zawahri’s presence in the Kabul house like in the case of his predecessor, Osama bin Laden, before he was killed in a commando raid in 2011 in Pakistan’s Abbottabad. Zawahri was watched for extended periods on the balcony within Kabul’s diplomatic quarters, which housed Western embassies until the Taliban’s return to power last year.
The operation was launched after American intelligence sources were tipped off about the relocation of Zawahri’s wife, daughter, and grandchildren to the house earlier this year. It would take more time for American intelligence agencies to conclude that Zawahri was there as well to begin executing it by firing Hellfire missiles with long blades meant to kill targets with kinetic energy to minimize collateral damage.
American President Joe Biden’s deputy national security adviser, Jonathan Fine, and homeland security adviser, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, were first briefed on the intelligence about Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul in April. Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, was put in the picture later and he eventually briefed the president.
Top officials, including CIA chief William J Burns, on July 1 discussed the operation with Biden. They showed Biden a model of the house Zawahri was hiding in. Biden was briefed about factors that could influence the success of the operation including weather, construction materials as well as the risk to civilians.
The operation concluded as per the plan as the missiles killed Zawahri without harming anyone else. A botched drone strike killed 10 civilians in Kabul as the US was carrying out evacuations from Afghanistan following the Taliban’s return to power last August. The US acknowledged the error only after The New York Times reported about it and the American administration has since been cautious in ensuring civilian casualties were prevented in such strikes. It has been in talks about repositioning American forces in neighbouring Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan for striking high-value targets in Afghanistan as part of an over-the-horizon strategy. It still has the capability to launch manned and unnamed attacks within Afghanistan from bases in the Indian Ocean, along the Persian Gulf, and the US even without repositioning its troops.
The Americans were aware of a network that supported Zawahiri for years and they began watching for indications of al-Qaida’s presence in Afghanistan over the past year following the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. The construction and nature of Zawahiri’s safe house were scrutinized along with its occupants to ensure the operation could be conducted to kill the al-Qaida chief without threatening the building and minimizing the risk to civilians.
Biden held a series of meetings to scrutinize the intelligence and evaluate the best course of action. He examined the model of the safe house and sought analysis of the potential ramifications of Zawahiri’s killing. Inter-agency lawyers examined the intelligence and confirmed Zawahiri was a legitimate target as he led al-Qaida. On July 25, Biden received a final briefing and discussed how Zawahiri’s killing would affect America’s relationship with the Taliban, etc before authorising “a precisely tailored air strike” on the condition that the risk of civilian casualties is minimized.
Zawahri, a key plotter of the 9/11 attacks, took over as al-Qaida’s chief after bin Laden’s death. His killing ended a 21-year manhunt that stretched out over a generation a year after Biden withdrew American forces from Afghanistan to pave the way for the Taliban’s return to power. It was the first such successful strike since the withdrawal without American forces on the ground. Biden has maintained the US can continue waging war against terrorists without major deployments of ground forces unlike in the first two decades after the 9/11 attacks even as Zawahiri was sheltered in Afghanistan in violation of the Taliban’s commitment against providing al-Qaida a safe haven.
Zawahri’s presence in Afghanistan prompted criticism that American withdrawal from Afghanistan endangered the US. But the proponents of the withdrawal maintained the successful operation to take out Zawahari vindicated the pullout and over the horizon worked by protecting American interests without a large and expensive military presence in Afghanistan.