Analysis: US Drone Strike on Al-Zawahiri

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US Drone Strike on Al-Zawahiri
US Drone Strike on Al-Zawahiri

Note: This article is an analysis by 719 Intelligence Consortium, Pakistan Strategic Forum on Drone Strike by US on Al-Zawahiri. Analysis includes all the events of the operation as well as all the technical operational details.

What happened?

The United States military, specifically the United States Central Command’s U.S. Air Force MQ-9 component attached to Al Dhafra Air Base (a joint U.S.-French-Emirati military airbase 20 kilometers south of Abu Dhabi) conducted an unmanned airstrike on a house in the Sherpoor area of Kabul, Afghanistan which killed the leader of al-Qaeda, an internationally designated terrorist organization, Ayman Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri.

Al- Zawahiri was the leader of al-Qaeda for the past 11 years of its terrorist operations in Afghanistan, since 2011 when Osama Bin Laden was killed. USAF MQ-9s have been stationed at both Al-Dharfa in the UAE as well as Qatar’s Al Udeid airbase and Kuwait’s Ali Al Salem airbase. These are some of the major components of the United States’ unmanned strike basing capability in the Middle East and is the principal tool for counterinsurgency operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan for the past several years. They have been declared specifically as “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism capabilities.

As part of the withdrawal agreement made by former U.S. President Donald Trump and the Taliban and accepted by Biden, the Taliban agreed not to provide a safe haven for individuals involved with Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations and the U.S. agreed to only conduct military operations in Afghanistan with the consent of the Taliban government. U.S. officials called al-Zawahiri’s presence in Afghanistan a violation of the agreement. In response to the strike, Biden released a statement announcing al-Zawahiri’s death, calling the strike a “deliverance of justice”. The Taliban have also officially confirmed the airstrike, saying through an official press release that their investigation through their intelligence agency, the GDI, had confirmed it was an American drone that conducted the attack. The Taliban were aware of Al-Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul and many sections of the Taliban were actively hiding him.

Figure 1: USAF technicians prepare an MQ-9 Reaper drone from the United States Central Command area of operations. Notice the fuel tanks attached to the drone to significantly increase its operational radius.
Figure 1: USAF technicians prepare an MQ-9 Reaper drone from the United States Central Command area of operations. Notice the fuel tanks attached to the drone to significantly increase its operational radius.

What asset did the USAF use?

The General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper is a long-range medium-altitude long-endurance armed combat drone used primarily by the United States Air Force as well as its allies.

Figure 2: Two USAF MQ-9 Reaper drones spotted via satellite imagery from Al Dhafra airbase in the UAE, January 2022
Figure 2: Two USAF MQ-9 Reaper drones spotted via satellite imagery from Al Dhafra airbase in the UAE, January 2022

The drone can carry 3,000 pounds of precision-guided munitions and has an operational combat radius (the distance it can travel to conduct an airstrike and return) of 2,000 kilometers. This can be greatly increased via addition of fuel tanks, which gives the drone an operational range of over 3,500 kilometers. This is sufficient for the drone to use any route to reach Kabul while flying from USAF-operated airfields in the Middle East. This capability has been demonstrated many times by these drones, i.e., taking off from the Middle East and flying to Afghanistan, conducting a mission, and then returning, all without any refueling stops.

Preliminary analysis of the target location indicates that two guided munitions were used that contained no high-explosives warhead. This is collaborated from the lack of any characteristic burning or fireball in the exterior and interior of the house’s second floor which was targeted. Instead, unburned debris is seen. This is consistent with attacks using the AGM-114R9X weapon, a guided air to ground missile which operates without a warhead and hits its target with a 110-pound kinetic kill and after those six elongated blades, using a dispersing system. This is meant to minimize collateral damage and potentially take out a single target even if multiple personnel are in close vicinity. The weapon has been used in the past by the USAF against high-value insurgent targets.

Figure 3: Schematic of zero-warhead AGM-114R9X kinetic-kill missile
Figure 3: Schematic of zero-warhead AGM-114R9X kinetic-kill missile
Figure 4: USAF MQ-9 drone spotted over Kabul in November 2021, confirmed flying from Al-Udied airbase in Qatar, carrying fuel tanks.
Figure 4: USAF MQ-9 drone spotted over Kabul in November 2021, confirmed flying from Al-Udied airbase in Qatar, carrying fuel tanks.
Figure 5: On ground picture taken of the target location, morning of August 1 2022, showing no signs of explosive detonation or incendiary damage. Tarp covers entry location of missile on second floor.
Figure 5: On ground picture taken of the target location, morning of August 1 2022, showing no signs of explosive detonation or incendiary damage. Tarp covers entry location of missile on second floor.

Who was the target?

The target was Ayman Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri, a 71 year old Egyptian-born insurgent, who had served as the leader and General Emir of al-Qaeda since 2011. He earlier served as the Deputy Emir for al-Qaeda from 1988 to 2011 as well as the head of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad in the late 80s where he was involved in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, before moving to Afghanistan, and was heavily involved in planning 9/11, as well as several other high-profile terrorist attacks against the United States, as well as other countries including Pakistan, Egypt, Sudan, and Iraq. He also planned and executed multiple suicide bombings against Egyptian officials.

In November 1995, he masterminded an attack on the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan killing 17 people and injuring 60. The bombing severely alienated Pakistan in the diplomatic world. Then later in July 2007, Al-Zawahiri supplied direction for the Lal Masjid siege. This was the first confirmed time that Al-Zawahiri was taking militant steps against the Pakistan Government and guiding Islamic militants against the State of Pakistan.

Pakistan Army troops and Special Service Group taking control of the Lal Masjid found letters from al-Zawahiri directing Islamic militants Abdul Rashid Ghazi and Abdul Aziz Ghazi, who ran the mosque and adjacent madrasah. On December 27, 2007, al-Zawahiri was also implicated in the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Al-Zawahiri also had a year-long friendship with IRGC’s Quds Force commander Ahmad Vahidi. Al-Zawahiri was at the top of the FBI’s most wanted list for conducting heinous terrorist activities against the United States, Egypt, and Pakistan.

Figure 6: Osama Bin Laden with his Deputy, Ayman Al-Zawahiri in November 2011
Figure 6: Osama Bin Laden with his Deputy, Ayman Al-Zawahiri in November 2011

U.S intelligence sources say they were aware of al-Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul since the start of this year and CIA officials had briefed President Biden on a plan to target the Emir on July 1, 2022. President Biden had since then given official approval for the strike. The strike also involved a CIA team on the ground, relaying targeting data and movements and establishing a ‘pattern of life’ for the target. This has been confirmed from American intelligence sources. Al-Zawahiri never left the compound, according to Pentagon sources. The Taliban were, according to U.S intelligence sources, giving the “highest-level” of security to Al-Zawahiri.

What was the sequence of events?

The United States Intelligence Community had likely assessed with high levels of confidence that Al-Zawahiri had returned to Kabul and was staying with his family in a large house in the Sherpoor area of Kabul since at least January 2022. We know that the United States had an agreement with the Taliban that they will make sure that no elements inside Afghanistan would be used to plan and carry out terrorist activities against the United States or its allies. This provides legal cover to any potential U.S. anti-terrorist airstrike in Afghanistan. The leadership of the United States National Security Council was likely informed about the potential opportunity of attack after CIA ground teams in Kabul had completed verification of Al-Zawahiri’s presence sometime in April 2022 and then again in mid-to-late June 2022. Subsequently, President Biden was given a final briefing on 1 July 2022 after which executive approval was given.

President Biden being briefed
President Biden being briefed

President Biden was presented with a detailed plan including a scaled model of the house Al-Zawahiri was staying in. It is our understanding that while the USAF provided the necessary kill option, the operation was run by the CIA. Subsequently, ground teams and local Afghan informants in the CIA payroll confirmed through reconnaissance that Al-Zawahiri often spent time on the second-floor balcony. This provided for an excellent opportunity for taking out the Emir without any collateral damage to his civilian family members. A USAF MQ-9A drone from Al-Dafrah airbase in the UAE, armed with the missiles and strapped-on fuel tanks, took off in the morning of July 30th, 2022.

The drone likely reached Kabul in the early morning hours of July 31st and started airborne reconnaissance before linking up with the CIA ground team and confirming that Al-Zawahiri was on the balcony and alone. The house struck was owned by a top aide to Sirajuddin Haqqani, a senior official in the Taliban government. Two missiles were then fired at about 6:18 AM local time (6:48 AM Pakistan Time), killing the target. CIA on ground teams verified the kill as well as no collateral damage.

Today, the Taliban government admitted that U.S. drones conducted the strike. They have not, however, acknowledged that they knew the location of and were hiding Al-Zawahiri, nor do they plan to. This is since both the hiding of the Emir of al-Qaeda as well as his death in IEA state protection is a major embarrassment for the Taliban. Our sources in Kabul say that some Taliban factions including the Haqqani Network is advocating for a state funeral for Al-Zawahiri, meanwhile others in the IEA do not want this including the Foreign Minister Mawlawi Amir Khan Muttaqi.

Were third parties involved?

No. To the best of our knowledge, the U.S. wanted to keep the operation away from the Taliban, because it was known that some sections of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan were actively involved in hiding al-Zawahiri. It is our analysis that the strike was conducted without any cooperation from any third parties, meant to ensure operational success. ISKP social media has already begun ridiculing the Taliban for their failed attempts at protecting al-Zawahiri. Some analysts have likened the airstrike to the Taliban’s ‘Abbottabad moment’.

Some social media commentators have also pointed out a likely Pakistani connection. Pakistan Strategic Forum has confirmed that Pakistani security officials were unaware of the attack and that no cooperation of any kind was requested by U.S. forces in the operation from Pakistan. It is however possible that CIA on-ground teams were supported by Saudi Arabian and Egyptian intelligence. Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry welcomed the American announcement of Al-Zawahiri’s death.

This is, however, also unlikely. What is known from both American and Taliban statements as well as Pakistan Strategic Forum’s own sources in both Islamabad and Kabul, is that no link to any sort of Pakistani involvement can be found, neither do the Americans require Pakistani support for such a strike. Some social media users attached to an organized political IT cell pointed at a recent call between the Pakistani Chief of Army Staff and the Commander of U.S. Central Command, but these are regular calls initiated in the interest of military diplomacy at the direction of the Foreign Office and with permission from the proper diplomatic channels. Also, both U.S Central Command and the General Headquarters publicized the call, which would never happen in case of cooperation on such a high-profile counterinsurgency operation.

Calls between the COAS and the U.S. deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman was initiated at the behest of the Prime Minister’s Office and were based on economic security. The Deputy Secretary in her last visit to Pakistan also publicly met the COAS as the United States and Pakistan have longstanding defense and security relations. We observed a coordinated attempt from these social media cells to link the Army Chief’s military diplomacy initiatives (done at the instructions of the Prime Minister’s Secretariat), to links with this counter-insurgency operation. Our detailed investigation found no credible evidence of any such connection, nor need from the United States Air Force for any such Pakistani cooperation.

Pakistan has its own interests and security objectives to achieve in Afghanistan, which are well on their way with peace and disarmament negotiations with the TTP in advanced stages. Meanwhile Pakistan maintains the necessary direct kinetic strike military capabilities to achieve our desired end-state in Afghanistan. Pakistan is the direct beneficiary of continued peace in Afghanistan and our efforts towards that should not be misconstrued by any section with their own vested interests.

Author: Intel Consortium PSF

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