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From Bin Laden to Al Zawahiri: The evolution of America’s targeted killing strategy

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  1. Introduction
  2. Ayman Al Zawahiri is reported to have been killed in a smooth ‘surgical missile strike’ by the USA,  firing two Hellfire R9X missiles on the target, and apparently without any collateral damage.

This news flash brought back the memories of the 2011 Operation Neptune Spear by the US Navy Seals that killed Osama Bin Laden, the founder of Al Qaeda. Zawahiri became the chief of this terror group after Laden was killed in 2011.

President Joe Biden has even more reasons to celebrate the recent operation as he was the Vice President back then in 2011, sitting in the Situation Control Room along with the then President Barack Obama and other officials, as they all watched the Laden hunt being live telecasted from Pakistan. The tweets by Biden and Obama posted after the recent operations also point towards this bonhomie. The recent operation draws on from the experiences of the CIA and the US military strikes in West Asia, global opinions, human right concerns and lessons learnt from the 2011 strike. This article analyzes the important elements of the change in America’s targeted killing strategy since 2011.

  1. Background

Ever since the 9/11 WTC attacks happened in New York, Bin Laden had become the face of global terror. From a mystical figure wandering across the Hindu-Kush, he now suddenly found himself to be the most sought after terrorist in the world and his name was at the top in ‘wanted’ lists of many countries. The CIA and Pentagon effectively used the 9/11 incident to enhance their budgets and capabilities, the rationale behind doing so being justified by the horrendous attack that killed over 3000 people.

The CIA launched a massive intelligence gathering campaign, combining technical surveillance with extensive human intelligence gathering – even resorting to inhuman methods of interrogation.  The message was clear on America’s part as they declared the so called ‘Global War on Terror’ with the famous axiom “in this war , you are either with us or against us…” .  

It was quite amusing to see Barack Obama saying in his recent tweet after the successful operation that killed Zawahiri: “roots of terror can be destroyed, without declaring a war on terror…” but that was what he effectively did during his tenure at the White House, ordering almost 10 times more drone strikes than George Bush[1].

Way back in 2011, the CIA presented their assessments and plans to Barack Obama regarding the Abottabad compound that they doubted was Laden’s safe house. CIA had inputs from many sources , including a ISI officer who tipped them off about the location of this compound. The CIA and other American agencies like the NSA and NGA had even bought a safe house in Abottabad to keep 24*7 surveillance on the suspected site.  

The mandate from the leadership was said to be “capture or kill” Osama Bin Laden[2], which became controversial later with some sections saying Laden should have been captured alive while most others being in favor of shoot-at-sight:

  1.   The Strategy:

The President was presented with multiple options like a drone strike (firing targeted missiles), a commando raid, bombing the compound by B-52 stealth bombers etc. One of the options to conduct a joint operation with Pakistan to kill Laden was ruled out, due to suspicions on Pakistan’s reliability. Barack Obama eventually ruled out the other options and confirmed the plan for a quiet midnight commando raid by Special Forces, who used modified Black Hawk helicopters, with mission specific arms and ammunitions.   Joe Biden is said to have also advised Obama about the possible ramifications for Pakistan when the knowledge of this operation became public. 

  • Aftermath Factor: 

Possibilities of collateral damage, other civilian casualties in the area etc. were also factored in. The CIA said they were unsure if aerial bombing would work, incase there is an underground bunker lying there. Also it would have been impossible to verify if Laden was dead, since till last moment the CIA had no photograph of ‘the white clothed man wandering in this compound’, to be Bin Laden or someone else. It was only after the Navy Seals saw Laden and shot him, it was confirmed that he was dead.    

  • On-ground Strategy:

A house intervention model of attack was followed with the Forces entering from the terrace and ground floor simultaneously, clearing out each room one by one. Laden was eventually discovered on the 3rd floor and as he tried to hide, a commando took 3 successive shots and killed him straight. A huge amount of hard drives, computers and whatever else the Seals could lay their hands on was taken away as evidence for further analysis.

  • Operational issues :

One of the helicopters that had crashed in the compound was blown up by explosives to avoid ‘reverse engineering’ attempts on the technology by Pakistan and China, and the remaining copters were used to carry Laden’s body back with the hit teams and the collected evidence. Laden was quietly buried in an unknown location in the Arabian Sea within 24 hours of the strike. During the raid other occupants of the house who came in the way of the commandoes were also shot dead [3].

E) Kill confirmation and identification:

Facial identification confirmed that it was Osama Bin Laden. To be doubly sure, one of the Navy Seals was made to lie down next to Laden’s body-and the body length also matched (6 feet). “You just blew up a $65 million helicopter and you don’t have enough money to buy a tape measure?”, Barack Obama is said to have remarked back then!

F) Public knowledge of the operation:

The White House issued a statement next day, saying the President will address the nation at around 10 pm local time, but some  junior officer from the Navy’s intelligence department leaked out the news of Laden’s death at around 9.45pm. The media was quick to pick this up, while the Presidential address happened around 11pm in the night.

G) Global responses

Pakistan was quite embarrassed, as it had always denied knowledge of existence of Laden on its land. Media reports mentioned that Pak allowed the Chinese to have a look at the wreckage of the damaged helicopter.

USA came in under huge criticism world over as more information about its detention centers, illegal interrogations and surveillances became public. Wikileaks and Edward Snowden also helped the world know about the CIA’s excesses in trying to catch Bin Laden. This became all the more important after US announced withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, that stretched to 2020 due to various reasons. The global opinion had been rising against America’s double standards and selective actions on terrorism as also its tacit support to Pakistan while being fully aware of Pak’s support to terrorism.  This became a learning point for all future special operations wherein America relied on no one else to carry out a similar strike.

  1. The Hunt for Ayman-Al-Zawahiri:

Its interesting to note that both Laden and Zawahiri carried a 25 million dollar bounty on their heads, as announced by USA and both were killed in official operations. Both were instrumental in planning the 9/11 attacks and that the leader of the violent jihadist group was in Afghanistan was not surprising: since the hard-line Islamist Taliban regained control in August, Al-Qaeda has felt more at home, analysts say. In the recent operations as well, this was an important consideration as the consequences of this operation on US-Taliban relationship was factored in, before giving the go ahead to kill Zawahiri – no official bilateral relations exist as of now, so that was not so much a concern for USA.

The intelligence derived from the huge trove of information hard drives in 2011 was used effectively in tracking down AL Qaeda members and other suspects, planning drone strikes killing terror sympathisers in Syria, Yemen, Somalia etc. since 2011. The USA could now map, identify, and link bits and pieces of information to make a careful selection of their targets. As Zawahiri assumed the top post in Al Qaeda after Laden was killed, he was quite obviously on the CIAs hit list. 

As was the case in 2011, the whole complex, its structure, material, surrounding buildings etc. were studied and it was decided to attack only Zawahiri, ensuring no other civilian casualties and infrastructure damage. US officials presented the house model and a final attack plan to President Biden on July 1st 2022. Issues that may arise due to weather, structure of building, collateral risks etc. were discussed out.

The main points of departure from the 2011 case were:

  • No US troops would enter the country,
  • Zawahiri was clearly identified and marked
  • Bi-lateral relations with Taliban are already at a low point

This minimised the post operations risk for the USA as even the attacking weapon, time of assault and the transport vehicle were aptly chosen as per the mission requirements. Also, the operation was made public by the President of the USA himself, thereby giving no chance to other non state entities inside or outside USA to leak out the news.

Also, since just Zawahiri is said to have been eliminated there has been no counter response from human rights organisations and other sympathisers of the Al Qaeda.

 The strike involved a US drone (most probably the Reaper), armed with two precision-guided Hellfire missiles (R9X version), which were launched at 6:18 am Kabul time on 31st July 2022 [1]. Zawahiri was “killed on the balcony” an official told the western news agencies. But since then no pictures or other data confirming the death of Zawahiri has been made available in the public domain. The only reliable sources remain the official tweets, news reports and response by the Taliban government.

A normal version of HELLFIRE  missile carries high explosives warheads that explode on impact and create area damage. But the R9X version  deploys a series of six sharp  knife-like blades from its fuselage and shreds its target but leaves nearby people and objects intact[2]. Some people describe it as “a falling anvil from the sky”.

This has earned it a deadly reputation by names of “flying ginsu” or “flying ninja” [3] as this missile has been used many times by US forces to kill other jihadist group leaders without hurting  people around them.

It has now become the go-to weapon for targeted killings of high value targets by the USA and as is the ritual in the intelligence community, the CIA never acknowledges the airstrikes it conducts. On previous occasions also, officials in USA have admitted to conducting such strikes, but on the usage of Hellfire missile neither any official, military contractor or the manufacturer of the original Hellfire series have responded to the use of this missile. The US government has never accepted or rejected the possession of this missile in its arsenal.

Thus, the counter terrorism strategies would further evolve in coming years as new technology increasingly has an influence on tactics and strategy, making them an important influencer in planning offensive operations. This would also mitigate the concerns on human rights, innocent killings and infrastructural losses. If carried out in complete secrecy, such operations ensure almost zero accountability for the attacking side – and that’s how new era warfare would be – potent, stealthy and anonymous.

End Notes

“Killing of Osama Bin Laden.” In Wikipedia, August 18, 2022.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (en-GB). “Obama’s Covert Drone War in Numbers: Ten Times More Strikes than Bush.” Accessed August 30, 2022.

“Pakistan’s Sovereignty and the Killing of Osama Bin Laden | ASIL.” Accessed August 30, 2022.

“U.S. Drone Strike Kills al-Qaida Leader in Kabul > U.S. Department of Defense > Defense Department News.” Accessed August 30, 2022.

“US next Generation Drone Strikes: How AFADS Scan Targets Using AI Precision – World News.” Accessed August 30, 2022.

Hindustan Times. “US Used ‘Flying Ginsu’ Missile to Kill al-Qaeda’s al-Zawahiri? 5 Details on Op,” August 2, 2022.

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