October 7, 2022

Two Hellfire missiles ended the life of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri on a balcony at a shelter in an affluent neighborhood in Kabul, the Afghan capital, at 6:18 a.m. Sunday, a senior administration official said Monday.

The missiles were fired from an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, killing him instantly.

The nature of the strike, as described by a senior administration official, indicates the US may have used the R9X Hellfire variant, also known as the “Ninja” or “Flying Ginsu” missile, nicknamed the knife. sold to television in the 1980s. This variant has been used in the recent past to kill other extremist leaders.

The R9X Hellfire has six blades that spin at high speed and deploy before impact — instead of conventional warheads, according to Janes, a defense intelligence provider. The missile penetrates and cuts through its target, rather than blowing it up. The design makes it easier to extract a target while reducing the chance of causing additional casualties.

Ayman Al Zawahiri
Ayman Al-Zawahiri in an undated video image

Maher Attar/Sygma via Getty Images

The White House has not released details about the type of Hellfire missiles being used. A reporter asked a senior administration official in a phone call Monday about the nature of the missile, but the official did not respond.

The senior government official who briefed reporters said the strike only killed al-Zawahiri, avoiding civilian casualties, and that the strike did not completely destroy the bunker where al-Zawahiri was hiding with his family. It is unclear whether the rockets caused structural damage beyond the atrium. Two intelligence sources familiar with the matter said the CIA carried out the hit.

Hellfire missiles are air-to-surface missiles originally designed for anti-armor strikes, but later versions have been used for precision drone strikes. Weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin developed the missiles under the name “Heliborne, Laser, Fire, and Forget Missile,” which evolved into the Hellfire missile, as it is now known.

The R9X variant was originally developed covertly in 2017, according to a US military equipment guide, and was used to kill Abu Khayr al-Masri, a member of the al-Qaeda leadership.

Photos of the aftermath on social media showed the car where al-Masri is said to have been killed as it had damage to the passenger compartment of the beige Kia sedan but no damage to the engine block. The roof was opened from the right side of the vehicle.

An image from a video posted online by Syrian activists in Idlib province shows people inspecting a sedan that was heavily damaged by an alleged US airstrike on February 26, 2017. There have been unconfirmed reports that al-Qaeda deputy leader Abdullah Muhammad Rajab Abdulrahman also known as Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, was killed in the attack.

The Hellfire variant became public knowledge after it was used in 2019 to take out Jamal Ahmad Mohammad Al Badawi, who was behind the 2000 USS Cole Bombing.

The Wall Street Journal reported in 2019 that a weapon similar to the R9X was considered as an alternative way to kill former al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011, but officials ultimately decided to use special forces fighters instead.

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