US revenge a slow revenge: How US tracked and killed al-Zawahri, bin Laden’s 2IC with a drone, 21yrs after 

0 1,158

US revenge a slow revenge: How US tracked and killed al-Zawahri, bin Laden’s 2IC with a drone, 21yrs after

A U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan last weekend killed Ayman al-Zawahri, who helped Osama bin Laden plot the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and helped al-Qaida survive and spread in the years after. By finding and striking al-Zawahiri, President Joe Biden said, the U.S. was ensuring that Afghanistan under the Taliban would never again become a base for attacks on the rest of the world, as it was in 2001.

A look at the al-Qaida leader, who evaded U.S. capture for 21 years after the suicide airliner attacks that in many ways changed America and its relations with the rest of the world.

WHO WAS AYMAN AL-ZAWAHRI?

Americans who lived through the 9/11 attacks may not remember al-Zawahri’s name, but many know his face, more than two decades on: a man in glasses, slightly smiling, invariably shown in photos by the side of bin Laden as the two arranged the strike on the United States.

An Egyptian, al-Zawahri was born June 19, 1951, to a comfortable family in a leafy, drowsy Cairo suburb. Religiously observant from boyhood, he immersed himself in a violent branch of a Sunni Islamic revival that sought to replace the governments of Egypt and other Arab nations with a harsh interpretation of Islamic rule.

Al-Zawahri worked as an eye surgeon as a young adult, but also roamed Central Asia and the Middle East, witnessing Afghans’ war against Soviet occupiers in that country, and meeting young Saudi Osama bin Laden and other Arab militants rallying to help Afghanistan expel Soviet troops.

He was one of hundreds of militants captured and tortured in Egyptian prison after Islamic fundamentalists’ assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Biographers say the experience further radicalized him. Seven years later, al-Zawahri was present when bin Laden founded al-Qaida.

Al-Zawahri merged his own Egyptian militant group with al-Qaida. He brought al-Qaida organizational skill and experience — honed underground in Egypt, evading Egyptian intelligence — that allowed al-Qaida to organize cells of followers and strike around the world.

WHY WAS AL-ZAWAHRI IMPORTANT?

Ayman al-Zawahri

After the years of quietly assembling the suicide attackers, funds and plans for the Sept. 11 attack, Zawahri and lieutenants ensured that al-Qaida survived the global manhunt that followed to attack again.

On the run after 9/11, al-Zawahri rebuilt al-Qaida leadership in the Afghan-Pakistan border region and was the supreme leader over branches in Iraq, Asia, Yemen and beyond. With a credo of targeting near and far enemies, al-Qaida after 9/11 carried out years of unrelenting attacks: in Bali, Mombasa, Riyadh, Jakarta, Istanbul, Madrid, London and beyond. Attacks that killed 52 people in London in 2005 were among al-Qaida’s last devastating attacks in the West, as drone strikes, counterterrorism raids and missiles launched by the U.S. and others killed al-Qaida-affiliated fighters and shattered parts of the network.

HOW WAS HE KILLED?

Around sunrise Sunday, Al-Zawahri walked out on the balcony of a house in Kabul, Afghanistan. He apparently lingered outside on the balcony, as U.S. intelligence had noted he often did. On this day, a U.S. drone fired two Hellfire missiles at the al-Qaida leader as he stood, according to U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the strike.

His presence in Afghanistan had been widely suspected for some time, analysts said. U.S. officials learned this year that Zawahri’s wife and other family members had moved to a safe house in Kabul recently. Zawahri soon followed, the senior administration officials said.

U.S. officials, joined by top leaders all the way up to, eventually, Biden, spent careful months confirming his identity — and his fateful practice of standing alone on that same balcony — and planned the strike.

WHAT DOES HIS KILLING MEAN FOR AL-QAIDA?

Bin Laden (right) listened to his top deputy, al-Zawahri at an undisclosed rendezvous in 2002

It depends on which al-Qaida lieutenant succeeds him. And after decades of U.S. and other strikes, that’s a pretty thin group. Al-Qaida expert Ali Soufan points to an Egyptian, Saif al-Adl, as one of the candidates to be dreaded by the West, given al-Adl’s revered status within al-Qaida, his experience, and the potential of his charisma to draw back al-Qaida defectors who’ve moved to other groups.

But al-Qaida overall now faces a succession crisis and a shaky future. That includes rivalries against aggressive upstart extremist groups that came into being after 9/11 and also have a presence in Afghanistan.

Charles Lister, another expert in violent extremist networks, wrote after the killing that the nature and spread of conflicts around the Middle East, Africa and South Asia today favor locally focused jihadist organizations rather than globally focused ones.

Al-Qaida’s next leader will have to prove his relevance to “self-confident affiliates that have been more willing to push back against a central leadership perceived as detached from the realities of conflicts thousands of miles away,” Lister wrote.

DID THE TALIBAN KNOW AL-ZAWAHRI WAS IN AFGHANISTAN?

Undoubtedly, U.S. officials said. It wasn’t clear Monday how long al-Zawahri had been in Afghanistan, but his presence there had been widely rumored for some time, said Asfandyar Mir, a Central Asia expert with the U.S. Institute of Peace. Not only that: The house where Al-Zawahri was living with his family was owned by a top aide to senior Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, according to a senior U.S. intelligence official.

It could be that someone among the Taliban sold out al-Zawahri and his family to U.S. or other foreign interests. But it was a Taliban government that took in al-Qaida’s leaders in the mid-1990s and allowed them to plot the 9/11 attacks there, sparking the 20-year U.S.-led war there. The worry after al-Zawahri’s death in Afghanistan’s capital was that the Taliban were allowing armed extremist organizations a home in Afghanistan again in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal, as the West had feared.

A LOOK AT THE MISSILE THAT KILLED AL-QAIDA LEADER

The merchant of death 

Other high-profile airstrikes in the past had inadvertently killed innocent civilians. In this case, the U.S. carefully chose to use a type of Hellfire missile that greatly minimized the chance of other casualties. Although U.S. officials have not publicly confirmed which variant of the Hellfire was used, experts and others familiar with counterterrorism operations said a likely option was the highly secretive Hellfire R9X — know by various nicknames, including the “knife bomb” or the “flying Ginsu.”

That potential use of the R9X, said Klon Kitchen, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former intelligence analyst, suggests the U.S. wanted to kill al-Zawahri with “limited likelihood of collateral death and destruction and for other relevant political reasons.”

A look at the Hellfire, and how al-Zawahri likely was killed:

WHAT IS A HELLFIRE MISSILE?

Originally designed as an anti-tank missile in the 1980s, the Hellfire has been used by military and intelligence agencies over the last two decades to strike targets in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere.

The precision-guided missiles can be mounted on helicopters and unmanned drones and are used widely in combat around the world. More than 100,000 Hellfire missiles have been sold to the U.S. and other countries, according to Ryan Brobst, an analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank.

“It can do enough damage to destroy most targets such as vehicles and buildings while not doing enough damage to level city blocks and cause significant civilian casualties,” Brobst said.

The U.S. military has routinely used Hellfire missiles to kill high-value targets, including a senior al-Qaida leader in Syria last year, and al-Qaida propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in 2011.

WHAT KILLED AL-ZAWAHRI?

The U.S. had multiple options for the attack. It could have used a traditional Hellfire, a bomb dropped from an manned aircraft, or a far more risky assault by ground forces. U.S. Navy SEALs, for example, flew into Pakistan on helicopters and took out Osama bin Laden in a raid.

In this case, the CIA opted for a drone strike. And while the CIA generally doesn’t confirm its counterterrorism missions and closely guards information about strikes it conducts, U.S. government officials have said that two Hellfire missiles were fired at the balcony of the building where al-Zawahri was living in Kabul.

Online images of the building show damage to the balcony, where the U.S. says al-Zawahri was, but the rest of the house is standing and not badly damaged.

Unlike other models of the Hellfire, the R9X doesn’t carry an explosive payload. Instead, it has a series of six rotating blades that emerge on its final approach to a target, Kitchen said. “One of their utilities is in opening up vehicles and other obstructions to get to the target without having to use an explosive warhead,” he said.

AVOIDING CIVILIAN CASUALTIES

U.S. officials and experts made clear last week that avoiding civilian casualties was a crucial element in the choice of weapon.

Less than a year ago, a U.S. drone strike — using a more conventional Hellfire missile — struck a white Toyota Corolla sedan in a Kabul neighborhood and killed 10 civilians around and near the car, including seven children. In the midst of the chaotic U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, American forces believed there were explosives in the car and that it posed an imminent threat to troops on the ground. It was, military leaders said, a “tragic mistake”

One former U.S. official said the likely choice of an R9X is an example of the administration’s effort to find ways to minimize collateral damage and prevent the loss of innocent life. That missile is a very accurate weapon that strikes in a very small area, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss counterterrorism operations.

An administration official said Monday that the U.S. investigated the construction of the house where al-Zawahri was staying in order to ensure that the operation could be done without threatening the structural integrity of the building and also minimizing the risks of killing civilians, including members of his family who were in other parts of the house.

The choice of missile is ultimately one part of reducing the possibility of killing civilians or causing other collateral damage.

“I would say this is by far a lower-risk option,” said Tom Karako, an expert on missile defense at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. Using the Hellfire, he said, “reflects a high degree of caution as opposed to a riskiness.”

WATCHING AL-QAIDA CHIEF’S ‘PATTERN OF LIFE’ KEY TO HIS DEATH

U.S. officials had built a scale model of the safe house where al-Zawahri had been located, and brought it into the White House Situation Room to show President Joe Biden. They knew al-Zawahri was partial to sitting on the home’s balcony.

They had painstakingly constructed “a pattern of life,” as one official put it. They were confident he was on the balcony when the missiles flew, officials said.

Years of efforts by U.S. intelligence operatives under four presidents to track al-Zawahri and his associates paid dividends earlier this year, Biden said, when they located Osama bin Laden’s longtime No. 2 — a co-planner of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S. — and ultimate successor at the house in Kabul.

Bin Laden’s death came in May 2011, face to face with a U.S. assault team led by Navy SEALs. Al-Zawahri’s death came from afar, at 6:18 a.m. in Kabul.

His family, supported by the Haqqani Taliban network, had taken up residence in the home after the Taliban regained control of the country last year, following the withdrawal of U.S. forces after nearly 20 years of combat that had been intended, in part, to keep al-Qaida from regaining a base of operations in Afghanistan.

But the lead on his whereabouts was only the first step. Confirming al-Zawahri’s identity, devising a strike in a crowded city that wouldn’t recklessly endanger civilians, and ensuring the operation wouldn’t set back other U.S. priorities took months to fall into place.

That effort involved independent teams of analysts reaching similar conclusions about the probability of al-Zawahri’s presence, the scale mock-up and engineering studies of the building to evaluate the risk to people nearby, and the unanimous recommendation of Biden’s advisers to go ahead with the strike.

“Clear and convincing,” Biden called the evidence. “I authorized the precision strike that would remove him from the battlefield once and for all. This measure was carefully planned, rigorously, to minimize the risk of harm to other civilians.”

The consequences of getting it wrong on this type of judgment call were devastating a year ago this month, when a U.S. drone strike during the chaotic withdrawal of American forces killed 10 innocent family members, seven of them children.

Biden ordered what officials called a “tailored airstrike,” designed so that the two missiles would destroy only the balcony of the safe house where the terrorist leader was holed up for months, sparing occupants elsewhere in the building.

A senior U.S. administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the strike planning, said al-Zawahri was identified on “multiple occasions, for sustained periods of time” on the balcony where he died.

The official said “multiple streams of intelligence” convinced U.S. analysts of his presence, having eliminated “all reasonable options” other than his being there.

Two senior national security officials were first briefed on the intelligence in early April, with the president being briefed by national security adviser Jake Sullivan shortly thereafter. Through May and June, a small circle of officials across the government worked to vet the intelligence and devise options for Biden.

On July 1 in the White House Situation Room, after returning from a five-day trip to Europe, Biden was briefed on the proposed strike by his national security aides. It was at that meeting, the official said, that Biden viewed the model of the safe house and peppered advisers, including CIA Director William Burns, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and National Counterterrorism Center director Christy Abizaid, with questions about their conclusion that al-Zawahri was hiding there.

Biden, the official said, also pressed officials to consider the risks the strike could pose to American Mark Frerichs, who has been in Taliban captivity for more than two years, and to Afghans who aided the U.S. war efforts who remain in the country. U.S. lawyers also considered the legality of the strike, concluding that al-Zawahri’s continued leadership of the terrorist group and support for al-Qaida attacks made him a lawful target.

The official said al-Zawahri had built an organizational model that allowed him to lead the global network even from relative isolation. That included filming videos from the house, and the U.S. believes some may be released after his death.

On July 25, as Biden was isolated in the White House residence with COVID-19, he received a final briefing from his team.

Each of the officials participating strongly recommended the operation’s approval, the official said, and Biden gave the sign-off for the strike as soon as an opportunity was available.

That unanimity was lacking a decade earlier when Biden, as vice president, gave President Barack Obama advice he did not take — to hold off on the bin Laden strike, according to Obama’s memoirs.

The opportunity came early Sunday (July 31) — late Saturday (July 30) in Washington — hours after Biden again found himself in isolation with a rebound case of the coronavirus. He was informed when the operation began and when it concluded, the official said.

A further 36 hours of intelligence analysis would follow before U.S. officials began sharing that al-Zawahri was killed, as they watched the Haqqani Taliban network restrict access to the safe house and relocate the dead al-Qaida leader’s family. U.S. officials interpreted that as the Taliban trying to conceal the fact they had harbored al-Zawahri.

After last year’s troop withdrawal, the U.S. was left with fewer bases in the region to collect intelligence and carry out strikes on terrorist targets. It was not clear from where the drone carrying the missiles was launched or whether countries it flew over were aware of its presence.

The U.S. official said the Taliban was provided with no forewarning of the attack. In an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Tuesday, Sullivan said that no uniformed personnel had been on the ground when the strike happened and that “we are in direct communication with the Taliban on this.”

In remarks 11 months ago, Biden had said the U.S. would keep up the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries, despite pulling out troops. “We just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it.”

“We have what’s called over-the-horizon capabilities,” he said.

On Sunday, the missiles came over the horizon. And America got her revenge – Ayman al-Zawahri, who helped Osama bin Laden plot the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and helped al-Qaida survive and spread in the years after, was removed from the battlefield once and for all.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.