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The killing of the al-Qaeda chief: how it was done

The house in Kabul after two missiles struck Zawahiri

The house in Kabul after two missiles struck Zawahiri

On August 1, U.S. President Joe Biden wrote that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization, was killed on his order on July 31 by two Hellfire missiles fired by an unnamed drone. Zawahiri was killed on the balcony of his house in Kabul, while nobody else was hurt, including members of the al-Qaeda leader's family.

After the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York, the U.S. administration considers the fight against Al-Qaeda a matter of honor. The previous leader of the organization, Osama bin Laden, was killed by Americans in Pakistan in 2011. Currently, al-Qaeda is estimated to have around 300 fighters.

The Taliban promised Americans to fight al-Qaeda, but in fact they’re uneager to do it, as their primary internal enemy is ISIS.

After Zawahiri was killed right under their nose, the Taliban didn’t condemn it publicly. Anonymous sources say the reason is $40 million in "moral compensation" paid to them by the U.S.

How the CIA identified and killed Al-Qaeda leader Zawahiri

Zawahiri had been in hiding for years and the operation to locate and kill him was the result of "careful patient and persistent" work by the counter-terrorism and intelligence community, Reuters wrote citing a senior official from the Biden administration.

Ayman al-Zawahiri

Ayman al-Zawahiri

For a long time, Zawahiri had probably been in the so-called tribal area, which no government controls, in Pakistan or Afghanistan.

This year, intelligence identified that Zawahiri’s family — his wife, his daughter, and her children — had relocated to a safe house in Kabul and subsequently identified Zawahiri at the same location.

In April, intelligence officials grew more confident that Zawahiri permanently lived in that house and informed senior administration officials. Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor, subsequently briefed President Joe Biden.

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"We were able to build a pattern of Zawahiri’s life," the source said. Intelligence officials investigated the construction of the safe house and scrutinized its occupants to ensure the United States could confidently conduct an operation to kill Zawahiri without threatening the structural integrity of the building and minimizing the risk to civilians and Zawahiri’s family, the official said.

On July 1, Biden was briefed on a proposed operation in the White House Situation Room by members of his cabinet, including CIA Director William Burns.

The source states that Biden "asked detailed questions about what we knew and how we knew it" and closely examined a model of the safe house that had been brought to the meeting.

He asked about lighting, weather, construction materials, and other factors that could affect the success of the operation. The president also requested an analysis of the potential ramifications of a strike in Kabul.

"A tight circle of senior inter-agency lawyers examined the intelligence reporting and confirmed that Zawahiri was a lawful target," the official said.

On July 25, the president convened his key Cabinet members and advisors to receive a final briefing and discuss how killing Zawahiri would affect America’s relationship with the Taliban, among other issues. After that, Biden authorized "a precise, tailored air strike" on the condition that it minimized the risk of civilian casualties.

What Hellfire missiles are

The development of the AGM-114 Hellfire anti-armor air-to-surface missile started in the 1970s. It was developed to be a multi-mission system capable of high-precision strikes to destroy tanks, bunkers, and fortifications.

Despite the colloquial name "Hellfire", it was originally called the Heliborne laser, fire-and-forget missile, which was ultimately shortened to the acronym.

AGM-114 Hellfire missile

AGM-114 Hellfire missile

The primary platforms for the Hellfire system are attack helicopters. The missiles can also be carried by heavy drones MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper.

The missiles are produced in the U.S.; they are also manufactured under license in Sweden (designated RBS-17) and the U.K. (Brimstone).

The production of Hellfire started in 1982. The complex has several modifications with different guidance systems and warheads.

Hellfire performance specifications:

  • Length: 1.6 to 1.8 m;
  • Diameter: 178 mm;
  • Weight: 45 to 50 kg;
  • Warhead: 8 kg;
  • Engine: solid-fuel;
  • Operational range: 7.1 to 11 km;
  • Maximum speed: 425 m/sec (10% higher than the speed of sound).

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