WASHINGTON: Dreaded global terrorist and al-Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed in a “precision” strike in the centre of Kabul, the Afghanistan capital, in a major blow to the militant group since its founder Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011. According to reports, Al-Zawahri was standing on the balcony of his hideout when the two Hellfire missiles were launched from an unmanned drone, killing him instantly.
Confirming his killing, US President Joe Biden said, “Now Justice has been delivered, and this terrorist leader is no more.” In a televised address to the nation from the White House on Monday, Biden said. “No matter how long it takes, no matter where you hide, if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out.” He said he had authorised the precision strike in downtown Kabul and that no civilians were killed.
How was Ayman al-Zawahiri killed?
US officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, claimed that Zawahiri was killed when he came out on the balcony of his safe house in Kabul on Sunday morning and was hit by “hellfire” missiles from a US drone. The pictures circulating on social media show no sign of an explosion, and if the US officials are to be believed, then ”no one else was harmed in the operation.”
Members of Zawahiri’s family were present in the home, but “were purposely not targeted and were not harmed,” the official said.
What was the ‘secret weapon’ used by the CIA?
It is believed that the United States used the macabre Hellfire R9X, a warhead-less missile equipped with six razor-like blades extending from the fuselage that slices through its target but does not explode. Also nicknamed the “ninja bomb,” the missile has become the top US munition for killing leaders of extremist groups while avoiding civilian casualties.
What is the Hellfire R9X?
Pentagon and CIA – the two top US agencies which are known to undertake targeted assassinations of wanted extremist leaders – have never publicly acknowledged the use of the Hellfire R9X missile. However, it first appeared in March 2017 when Al-Qaeda senior leader Abu al-Khayr al-Masri was killed by a drone strike while travelling in a car in Syria.
According to Wall Street Journal, the AGM-114 Hellfire missiles are air-to-ground, laser-guided, subsonic missiles with significant anti-tank capacity. The Hellfire missiles have several variants, depending on their warhead, guidance system, and physical variations. Hellfire R9X, which uses pop-out sword blades to kill targets with minimal collateral damage, is the latest and peculiar addition to the line of Hellfire missiles. It has been specially designed for targeted killings. According to WSJ, this may have been the variant of the Hellfire missile used to assassinate Iranian General Qasem Soleimani.
The weapon was developed reportedly under the Barack Obama Administration, with a focus on reducing civilian casualties as terrorists increasingly started taking women and children hostage.
Zawahiri’s killing – A big blow to Al Qaeda
Zawahiri, an Egyptian surgeon who had a $25 million bounty on his head, helped coordinate Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people. “Zawahiri continued to pose an active threat to US persons, interests and national security,” the official said on a conference call. “His death deals a significant blow to al Qaeda and will degrade the group`s ability to operate.”
The drone attack is the first known US strike inside Afghanistan since US troops and diplomats left the country in August 2021. The move may bolster the credibility of Washington`s assurances that the United States can still address threats from Afghanistan without a military presence in the country.
Was the Taliban regime aware of Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul?
His death also raises questions about whether Zawahiri received sanctuary from the Taliban following their takeover of Kabul in August 2021. The official said senior Taliban officials were aware of his presence in the city and said the United States expected the Taliban to abide by an agreement not to allow al Qaeda fighters to re-establish themselves in the country.
“The Taliban will have to answer for al-Zawahiri`s presence in Kabul, after assuring the world they would not give safe haven to al-Qaeda terrorists,” Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a statement. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Taliban had “grossly violated” the Doha Agreement between the two sides by hosting and sheltering Zawahiri.
Former President Barack Obama joined lawmakers in praising the operation. “Tonight’s news is also proof that it’s possible to root out terrorism without being at war in Afghanistan,” Obama said in a Twitter message. “And I hope it provides a small measure of peace to the 9/11 families and everyone else who has suffered at the hands of al Qaeda.”
(With Agency Inputs)