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Two Hellfire missiles aimed at a balcony in central Kabul: This is how the US killed Ayman al Zawahiri

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It’s Sunday, July 31, 6:18 am in Kabul. Two guided missiles hit a building in the Afghan capital. It is a three-story building in Sherpur’s exclusive diplomatic district, an area frequented by Taliban government officials. It is just a few meters from the UK or French embassies.

That’s how the house stayed after the rockets hit, according to several reporters and witnesses in the area. Photography by @aarash_afg

At 10,800 kilometers, Joe Biden, confined by coronavirus, is tracking the operation from the White House, where it is 9:48 p.m. on Saturday. Almost 48 hours later, the President of the United States confirmed the success of the attack: Washington killed Ayman al Zawahiri, one of the ideologues behind the September 11 attacks, after his death in 2011. The terrorist had been in a house in the Afghan capital since April at the latest fled, which the residents of the neighborhood considered deserted.

Taliban authorities They covered the building with some tarpaulins hours after the attack, but there are no burns, explosion remnants or detonation marks on its walls: several analysts suspect that such a thing can only be due to the fact that the latest generation of the Hellfire missile family, the AGM 114R9X.

That Ninja Rocket, as the R9X model is called, is being used more and more for precision strikes against terrorist leaders. A senior White House official limited himself to explaining in a telephone call to journalists in Washington on Monday that the ammunition used was “two” Hellfire missiles, without giving further details.

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A car after an attack

R9X, in Idlib, Syria

That Sound create clean cuts in the body

Al Qaeda leader Abu Khayr al Masri’s car was hit by an R9X in Syria in 2017

The accuracy of the weapon makes car window do not burst on impact

A car after an attack

R9X, in Idlib, Syria

That Sound create clean cuts in the body

Al Qaeda leader Abu Khayr’s car

al Masri, hit by an R9X in Syria,

in 2017

The accuracy of the weapon makes car window do not burst on impact

A car after an R9X attack in Idlib, Syria

That Sound create clean cuts in the body

Al Qaeda leader Abu Khayr al Masri’s car

Hit by an R9X in Syria in 2017

The accuracy of the weapon makes car window do not burst on impact

A car after an R9X attack in Idlib, Syria

That Sound create clean cuts in the body

Al Qaeda leader Abu Khayr al Masri’s car was hit by an R9X in Syria in 2017

The accuracy of the weapon makes car window do not burst on impact

The novelty of this missile is that it carries no explosives: it kills due to its speed and because six blades detach from its body before impact.

It was first used in 2017 and there is a lot of secrecy about how it works. There are no official images of the missile intact, but it was reconstructed from debris from other attacks. An investigation by verification experts from Newsly and Bellingcat revealed that it has been used at least 11 times to date in countries such as Syria, Yemen or Afghanistan.

His first official appearance was in an article from Wall Street Journal May 2019, which documents the attack on the car of al-Qaeda deputy leader Abu Khayr al Masri two years earlier in Syria. A normal rocket would have blasted the car apart with its blast, smashing the windows and leaving detonation debris everywhere. “Using an R9X leaves a lot of the vehicle intact. Blade cuts appear to be the ‘signature’ of the R9X.” described Nick Waters, ex-military and analyst. The part of al Masri’s car that wasn’t directly hit by the shell remained intact.


A car after an attack

R9X, in Iblid, Syria

That Sound create clean cuts in the body

Al Qaeda leader Abu Khayr al Masri’s car was hit by an R9X in Syria in 2017

The accuracy of the weapon makes car window do not burst on impact

A car after an attack

R9X, in Iblid, Syria

That Sound create clean cuts in the body

Al Qaeda leader Abu Khayr’s car

al Masri, hit by an R9X in Syria,

in 2017

The accuracy of the weapon makes car window do not burst on impact

A car after an R9X attack in Iblid, Syria

That Sound create clean cuts in the body

Al Qaeda leader Abu Khayr al Masri’s car

Hit by an R9X in Syria in 2017

The accuracy of the weapon makes car window do not burst on impact

A car after an R9X attack in Iblid, Syria

That Sound create clean cuts in the body

Al Qaeda leader Abu Khayr al Masri’s car was hit by an R9X in Syria in 2017

The accuracy of the weapon makes car window do not burst on impact

The missile’s development began a decade ago, during the Obama administration, and appears to be precise enough to avoid innocent casualties. Human Rights Watch RememberedHowever, the accuracy of a guided missile is only as good as the information it guides. Alone, they would not prevent the more than 500 civilian deaths from US drones would have provoked in Afghanistan only since 2015. The last ones were the 10 deceased almost a year agodays after the US Army left the country.

21 years of search

During his appearance on Monday, Biden reiterated twice in seven minutes that the operation was a success because it caused no “civilian casualties.” A senior White House official explained that this part is essential to the plan because the target is in a populated area of ​​central Kabul.

US intelligence received information in early 2022 that Al Zawahiri was taking refuge in this unnamed building along with his wife, daughter and grandchildren. His reports have placed al Qaeda’s ringleader in Pakistan for years, having narrowly survived the December 2001 battle in the remote Tora Bora region.

The operation that ended his life was conducted in secret, and only a small number of members of various Washington-based agencies were aware of it from the start, in April. They collected data on household members’ habits. Al Zawahiri never left her in all those months, but he did have a habit of going out onto the balcony to get some air, which turned out to be deadly. “Only when we had all the information precisely defined,” the senior official clarified, “did we share it with the President.”

That moment came in May. On July 1, it took place in a session from which a photo has surfaced that was distributed by the White House this Tuesday. It shows Biden without a mask, surrounded by some of his closest associates, who are masked: National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan is sitting to his left. To his right is William Burns, director of the CIA, the agency that led the attack.

Joe Biden is briefed on the operation to assassinate Ayman al-Zawahiri in the White House Situation Room
Joe Biden is briefed on the operation to assassinate Ayman al-Zawahiri in the White House Situation RoomAdam Schultz (AP)

At the center of the long table is a locked suitcase-shaped box containing a model of the vacant house, which the senior White House official says belongs to an aide to Sirajuddin Haqqani, the interior minister and leader of the Taliban government’s Haqqani Network, a notorious terrorist organization, associated with al-Qaeda. At that meeting, according to the aforementioned official, Biden was interested in the weather in Kabul at this time of year, the materials used in the construction of the building, or the consequences the operation might have for Mark Randall Frerichs, an American whom he has known since 2020 missing in Afghanistan. Only when it was clear to him that the attack would not cause any collateral damage, on July 25, did he authorize it, always according to the White House.

On the same day, Biden narrowed again after overcoming the corona virus. After three days of testing negative, he tested positive again due to the effects of an antiviral drug, Paxlovid, which he was given at the age of 79 to combat symptoms. Two days later, still isolated, he appeared before Americans to deliver news the White House had wanted for 21 years and for which the State Department had offered a $25 million reward. Al Qaeda’s intellectual column was dead. “Justice has finally been served and this terrorist leader no longer exists,” Biden said.

Jose A. Alvarez was involved in the creation of this information

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