Even with the balcony now covered, this is the alleged strike location in Kabul.
On July 31, a little over an hour after sunrise, longtime al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri emerged onto the balcony of a building in the center of Kabul. This was reportedly the veteran Egyptian jihadist’s go-to post-prayer activity. He would do it as his final act.
Two missiles struck the balcony at 06:18 local time (01:38 GMT), killing the 71-year-old but sparing his wife and daughter inside unharmed. The balcony looks to be the focal point of all the damage caused by the strike.
How was such a precise strike even possible?
The US has already come under fire for strikes and poor targeting decisions that have resulted in civilian deaths. But in this instance, here is how the type of missile and a careful examination of Zawahiri’s routines made it possible – and why other strikes may be forthcoming.
The type of missile deployed was crucial; according to US authorities, they were drone-fired Hellfires, an air-to-surface missile that has emerged as a mainstay of US counterterrorism operations abroad in the decades after the 9/11 attacks.
The missile can be launched from a number of vehicles, such as ships, fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, land vehicles, and in Zawahiri’s instance, an autonomous drone.
Hellfires are thought to have been used by the US to assassinate the British-born Jihadi John in Syria in 2015 and the Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad in early 2020. Precision is one of the key factors in the Hellfire’s frequent use.
When a missile is fired from a drone, a weapons operator can observe a live video stream of the target that the drone’s image includes relay back via satellite while seated in an air-conditioned control booth as far distant as the continental us.
The camera operator can then “lock up” the target and aim a laser at it using a series of “targeting brackets” on the screen. When the missile is launched, it travels along the laser’s course until it reaches its target.
To reduce the danger of civilian casualties, the crew controlling the drone must strictly follow, sequential protocols before acting. This has included consulting military lawyers first before an order to fire is given in previous US army or CIA strikes.
Authorities would have had to weigh the risk of civilian casualties against the importance of the target, according to Professor William Banks, an authority on targeted murders and the founder of the Syracuse University Institute for Security Policy and Law. He continued by saying that the Zawahiri attack “seems like a model use” of the procedure.
In this case, Prof. Banks said, “it sounds like they were very attentive and intentional to find him in a position and at a time when they could hit solely him and never damage any other person.”
It has been speculated, but not affirmed, that the US also used the R9X, a relatively unheard-of Hellfire variant, in the Zawahiri attack. The R9X deploys six blades that slice through objectives to use its kinetic energy.
The Hellfire R9X Missile:
Abu Khayr al-Masri, a member of Zawahiri’s staff and another al-Qaeda senior, was purportedly killed in Syria by an R9X Hellfire in 2017. Photos of his vehicle after the attack revealed that the missile had shredded its occupants and torn a hole in the roof, but there were no traces of an explosive or any other damage to the car.
The US kept tabs on Zawahiri’s “balcony habit”
Information on the intelligence the US obtained prior to the strike on Kabul is still becoming available.
However, US authorities claimed they had enough intelligence following the attack to comprehend Zawahiri’s “style of life” there, including his propensity to sit on the balcony. This shows that US spies had been keeping an eye on the home for several weeks or months.
Former senior CIA official Marc Polymeropoulos told the BBC that it is possible that several intelligence techniques, including agents on the ground and signals intelligence, were employed before the strike.
Some have even conjectured that US drones or aircraft alternately kept watching over the area for weeks or months while remaining silent and invisible to anyone on the ground below.
There must be “near assurance” that it is the individual, he said, and the operation must be carried out without causing any collateral damage, or civilian casualties. There is a lot of patience required.
The Zawahiri strike, Mr. Polymeropoulos continued, benefited from the decades-long expertise of the US intelligence community in locating specific members of al-Qaeda and other terrorist targets. “We are quite good at this. Over the past 20 years, the US government has become highly skilled at it “explained he. And as a result, Americans are much safer.
However, such US efforts do not always go as expected. Intent on hitting a local affiliate of the Islamic State group, a drone attack on a car near the Kabul airport on August 29, 2021, instead murdered 10 innocent civilians. The Pentagon admitted that there had been a “tragic error.”
Given the lack of any US government assets or presence nearby, according to Bill Roggio, a distinguished fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies whose been monitoring US drone operations for many years, the Zawahiri strike was probably “far more difficult” to carry out than earlier killings.
For instance, previous drone attacks against Pakistan, which is neighboring, were carried out from Afghanistan, while those on Syria were carried out from Iraq, a friendly country.
“It was much simpler for the US to go to those areas [in those locations]. It had resources there. This was far more difficult “said he. “Since the US withdrew, this is the first attack on al-Qaeda or the Islamic State in Afghanistan. It doesn’t happen often like this.”
Could this happen again?
If additional airstrikes against al-Qaeda sites are conducted in Afghanistan, Mr. Roggio said he “will not be surprised.” There are plenty of targets, he declared. If they haven’t already, the probable next leaders of al-Qaeda will most likely relocate to Afghanistan. The question is whether or not the US will still be able to accomplish this without difficulty. he added