Despite a $25 million bounty on his head, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri apparently felt comfortable enough with the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan to move to a house in Kabul. where he regularly appeared outdoors, on his balcony.
It dawns in Kabul and an American drone flies over the Afghan capital on Sunday while Ayman al Zawahiri is on the balcony of his house. Two missiles are fired, after years of monitoring and by decision of Joe Biden, against the leader of Al Qaeda, who falls dead.
Around the house where his wife, daughter and grandchildren live, the traces of an attack are minimal. No explosion appears to have occurred, and no other victims are known.
This airstrike in a summer sky is, according to the United States, the result of years of tracking and months of reconnaissance.
Wanted for years by the US secret services, especially after the death in 2011 of Osama Bin Laden, whom he succeeded as head of the terrorist organization, Ayman al Zawahiri seemed to be taking refuge between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
According to a senior US official, Washington located his family in 2022 in a house used as a hideout in Kabul, city from which the US army had precipitously withdrawn last August before the Taliban took power.
Intelligence work confirmed in the following months that Ayman al-Zawahiri himself was there. The Americans studied the structure of the house, the risks to civilians, and his way of life: he never went out.
“We identified Zawahiri several times and for long periods on his balcony, where he was finally shot down.”explained a senior US official on Monday night, while Biden announced the news.
Only a handful of officials were aware of the operation during its preparation, in May and June.
An operation project was presented to Biden on July 1 in the so-called “situation room” of the White House, the same space from which, according to a well-known photo, former President Barack Obama followed the assault against Bin Laden live. in 2011 alongside Biden, then his vice president.
The president even received a model of the house at the end of the presentation.
A plan of attack was developed during May and June. The United States constantly monitored the multi-story residence to understand the family’s pattern of life.
They studied the construction of the house, with the aim of attacking Zawahiri without threatening the structural integrity of the building, in order to minimize the risk to civilians.
Defense and intelligence officials finalized the plan in June and presented it to Biden at the White House on July 1, using a detailed model of the residence, as was done before the bin Laden raid.
Biden asked detailed questions about the structure, weather issues and the risk to civilians, the official said.
On July 25, Biden brought together top advisers and “seeked to learn more about the organization of the rooms behind the door and window on the third floor.”
The president, then positive for covid, asked for everyone’s opinion and finally “authorized a precise and adapted air attack”continued the senior US official, who requested anonymity.
At 6:18 pm on Sunday in Kabul, it was about 17ºC, the sun had risen an hour ago and the head of Al Qaeda was up.
“The attack was finally executed (…) by a drone. Two Hellfire missiles (were fired at) Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is killed.”narrates the official.
“He was shot on the balcony.”
“According to multiple intelligence sources”he continues, it is indeed about him and only him who died, not relatives or civilians.
The Taliban, who control the country, told the AFP that a rocket hit an empty house in the affluent residential area of Sherpur, causing no casualties.
According to Washington, the operation did not require military personnel on the ground in Kabul.
“There were no US troops on the ground in Kabul”said a senior official, adding that Ayman al-Zawahiri’s presence in the Afghan capital was a “clear violation” of agreements reached with the Taliban in Doha in 2020.
These multiple elements suggest the use by the United States of a weapon whose existence has never been confirmed: Hellfire R9X “flying ginsu” missiles, named after a Japanese-inspired American brand of knives.
The R9X first appeared in March 2017 when Al-Qaeda’s top leader, Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, was killed in a drone strike.. while traveling in a car in Syria.
This modified version of the US missile is said to lack an explosive charge but has six blades that deploy before impact to slice through its target without blast effect.
A photo of the vehicle of a suspected target in Syria in 2017 shows a gaping hole in the roof, the interior smashed, but the front and rear intact.
The so-called “flying ginsu” missile has been used half a dozen or more times by US forces to shoot down other jihadist group leaders without injuring bystanders.
“Members of Zawahiri’s family were present in other parts of the safe house at the time of the attack and were not deliberately attacked or harmed“, said.
The official said that the attack “deals a significant blow to Al-Qaeda and will degrade the group’s ability to operate.”
“As President Biden has consistently said, we will not allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven for terrorists that could harm Americans,” the official said.
“This mission was carefully prepared”praised Biden in his speech. It was a success”.
(With information from AFP)