A look at the missile that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri

WASHINGTON (AP) — For a year, U.S. officials have said eliminating a terrorist threat in Afghanistan without U.S. troops on the ground would be difficult but not impossible. Last weekend, the United States did just that – killing al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri with a CIA drone strike.

Other high-profile airstrikes in the past have inadvertently killed innocent civilians. In this case, the United States carefully chose to use a type of Hellfire missile that greatly minimized the risk of further casualties. Although US officials have not publicly confirmed which variant of the Hellfire was used, experts and others familiar with counter-terrorism operations have said a likely option is the top secret Hellfire R9X – known by various nicknames, including the “knife bomb” or the “Ginsu robbery”. ”

This potential use of R9X, said Klon Kitchen, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former intelligence analyst, suggests that the United States wanted to kill al-Zawahri with “limited likelihood of collateral death and destruction and for d ‘other relevant policy reasons’.

A look at the Hellfire, and how al-Zawahri was likely killed:

WHAT IS A HELLFIRE MISSILE?

Originally designed as an anti-tank missile in the 1980s, the Hellfire has been used by military and intelligence agencies for the past two decades to strike targets in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere.

Precision-guided missiles can be mounted on unmanned helicopters and drones and are widely used in combat around the world. More than 100,000 Hellfire missiles have been sold to the United States and other countries, according to Ryan Brobst, an analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank.

“It can do enough damage to destroy most targets such as vehicles and buildings while not causing enough damage at the block level and causing significant civilian casualties,” Brobst said.

The US military has routinely used Hellfire missiles to kill high-value targets, including a senior al-Qaeda official in Syria last year and al-Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in 2011.

WHAT KILLED AL-ZAWAHRI?

The United States had several options for the attack. It could have used a traditional Hellfire, a bomb dropped from a manned aircraft, or a much more risky assault by ground forces. US Navy SEALs, for example, flew into Pakistan in helicopters and took out Osama bin Laden in a raid.

In this case, the CIA opted for a drone strike. And although the CIA does not usually confirm its counterterrorism missions and closely guards information about the strikes it carries out, US government officials say two Hellfire missiles were fired at the balcony of the building where al-Zawahri lived in Kabul.

Online images of the building show damage to the balcony, where the US says al-Zawahri was, but the rest of the house is standing and not badly damaged.

Unlike other Hellfire models, the R9X does not carry an explosive payload. Instead, it has a series of six rotating blades that emerge on its final approach to a target, Kitchen said. “One of their utilities is to open up vehicles and other obstacles to hit the target without having to use an explosive warhead,” he said.

AVOIDING CIVILIAN CASUALTIES

US officials and experts made it clear this week that avoiding civilian casualties was a crucial element in weapon choice.

less than a year ago, an American drone strike – using a more conventional Hellfire missile – hit a white Toyota Corolla sedan in a Kabul neighborhood and killed 10 civilians around and near the car, including seven children. Amid the chaotic U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, U.S. forces believed there were explosives in the car and posed an imminent threat to ground troops. It was, according to the military leaders, a “tragic error”

A former US official said the likely choice of an R9X is an example of the administration’s efforts to find ways to minimize collateral damage and prevent the loss of innocent lives. This missile is a very precise weapon that strikes in a very small area, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss counterterrorism operations.

An administration official said on Monday that the United States investigated the construction of the house where al-Zawahri was staying to ensure the operation could be carried out without threatening the structural integrity of the building and minimizing also the risks of killing civilians, including members of his family who were in other parts of the house.

The choice of missile is ultimately part of reducing the possibility of killing civilians or causing other collateral damage.

“I would say that’s by far a lower-risk option,” said Tom Karako, a missile defense expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. The use of the Hellfire, he said, “reflects a high degree of caution as opposed to risk.”

DOES THE US PROVIDE UKRAINE WITH DRONES THAT CAN FIRE HELLFIRE MISSILES?

No. Although the United States has provided billions of dollars in military assistance to help Ukraine fight off invading Russian troops, it is wary of providing weapons that could fire deep into Russia, which could escalate the conflict or lead the United States in the war.

As a result, the United States has so far not provided Hellfire missiles or drones that could fire them. Instead, the US has delivered smaller drones, called suicide bombers, such as the Switchblade and the Phoenix Ghost, which instead of firing missiles explode when they hit a target.

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