Killing Ayman al-Zawahiri: CIA’s Revenge and Proof of Concept for Over the Horizon Counter Terrorism

Over-the-horizon counter terrorism is characterized by low cost, zero risk yet high yielding operation.
Keywords: Taliban, Terrorism, Al-Zawahiri, Al Qaida, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Special Forces, Drone, Attack, Conflict 
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It was reported that on 31 July at 6.15 am, the 71-years old Al Qaida leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri was enjoying the early morning breeze from his second-floor balcony in the Shirpur village neighborhood in Kabul. He was unaware of a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) propelled steel bird – an MQ9 Reaper predator drone – roaming overhead in the sky. The remote-controlled drone that started from a secret base from Pakistan and was operated from Langley, Virginia ejected two Hellfire missiles, which rocketed towards the balcony of Zawahiri killing him instantly. The precision strike ended a more than two-decade-long manhunt and proved the concept that over the horizon counter-terrorism is one of the successful assassination methods to deal with terror organizations. 

Unlike Osama bin Laden’s mortal remains, which were reportedly packed and picked up by Navy SEALs from his Abbottabad hideout, it was not possible to forensically determine Zawahiri’s identity. However, when the Haqqani Network, the dreaded terror group that provides security cover to the neighborhood entered the devastated safe house of Zawahiri and rescued his wife, his daughter and his grandchildren, Zawahiri’s death became clearer. 

Shirpur village, an upscale downtown area of Kabul is just a few steps away from the Wazir Akbar Khan district, which houses the country’s diplomatic district and important ministries. Shirpur is like Pakistan’s cantonment town of Abbottabad where only the rich and well-connected, in particular, the officials of the security establishment reside. After 9/11, Northern Alliance leader and then defence minister Marshal Fahim removed all the Taliban supporters from Shirpur and built palatial mansions for high officials, businessmen and rich migrants from Panjshir. Since August 2021, history repeated itself and the Taliban forced the eviction of Afghan Government officials and businessmen from Shirpur village, which was then occupied primarily by high-ranking Taliban officials. The building where Zawahiri came to stay was allotted to the Haqqani Network, which is led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, the incumbent interior minister of Afghanistan.

On 31 August 2021, when the last American soldier Major General Chris Donahue boarded the US military flight from Kabul airport, the country became a sanctuary for Taliban and al Qaeda operatives after a gap of 21 years. Free from the prying eyes of NATO’s soldiers, terrorist leaders have descended on Afghanistan where their partner the Taliban runs the government and the Haqqani Network rules the territory.    

Zawahiri did not wait for long and was reunited with his family immediately after the US departure. Ending his two decades-long hiding, Zawahiri settled in a mansion in Shirpur, a few steps away from US Embassy and former US military headquarters in Kabul.

What is surprising is how the CIA managed to locate Zawahiri in an area where the Haqqani Network checks the identity of every resident and where security vetting is the direct responsibility of Sirajuddin Haqqani. Firing precision Hellfire missiles at such a high-value target required extreme on-ground human intelligence. Using Afghan expatriates in the United States, the CIA employed scores of Afghans in Kabul who in turn provided daily intelligence on the neighborhood and about the building where Zawahiri’s family was staying. Then the information was further corroborated by the CIA’s technical intelligence. Once Zawahiri’s identity and location were confirmed, the CIA resorted to over the horizon strike, the most secure option in the Afghan airspace. 

CIA has spent lots of resources and lost a number of lives in its search for Zawahiri, which proved elusive until July 31 and yet, bizarrely during two decades of the massive presence of soldiers, agents and spirs in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the CIA failed to locate Zawahiri.

On 30 December 2009, the CIA lost seven men and women when a Jordanian double agent Humam Khalil al-Balawi who turned up at the Forward Operating Base Chapman, Khost with purported information about the location of Zawahiri blew himself up, killing all of them. Balawi, the Jordanian double agent, who was also a doctor, had been employed by the CIA to infiltrate into the upper rank of al Qaeda. When he went to Khost for debriefing, he was fitted with C-4 explosives vest on his body. The fact that he was allowed in without being checked does not speak well of the Agency’s security protocols. CIA waited nearly 13 years to avenge the deaths of its fellow officers.

Over-the-horizon counter-terrorism is characterized by low cost, zero risk yet high-yielding operation, which is designed to reduce massive deployment of troops and avoid political-social ramifications. President Biden has long been advocating for the eradication of terrorism without stationing large troops in any conflict-ridden countries including in Afghanistan. 

Smoking out Zawahiri without any ground support and without sending a special force amounts to a fine intelligence operation of the CIA in recent history. Recently, on 3 February 2022, US special forces landed in Idlib province in Syria to raid the hideout of Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al Hashimi al Qurayshi. The IS leader was killed by commando action as was the case of bin Laden but Zawahiri’s killing was an even bigger hit for the CIA. 

Zawahiri, however, was only a nominal figurehead of the dreaded al Qaeda, the group is thriving in the Maghreb and Sahel region in Africa and in the troubled areas of Iraq and Syria. Under Zawahiri’s leadership, one of the attacks sponsored by Al Qaida was the killing of American Ambassador Christopher Stevens by its affiliate Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi in 2012. Even at his age, Zawahiri continued to pose a threat and his elimination may have a demoralising effect on the al Qaeda rank and file although it may also incite some to plan revenge attacks. 

For the US, taking such a decision was not easy especially given that its contractor, former Navy officer, the 58 years Mark Frerichs is still in the Taliban’s custody. Frerichs was kidnapped by them in 2020 from Kabul. The Haqqani Network may avenge the death of their guest Zawahiri by killing Frerichs. If that happens it will be the first negative outcome of Zawahiri’s death. The CIA agents must be tracking the whereabouts of Frerichs and hoping to retrieve him before it was late. 

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Dr Saroj Kumar Rath

Dr Saroj Kumar Rath teaches at the University of Delhi.

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