Two Hellfire missiles ended the life of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri on the balcony of a shelter in a wealthy neighborhood of Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, at 6:18 a.m. Sunday, a senior administration official said Monday.
The missiles were launched by an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, killing him instantly.
The nature of the strike as described by a senior administration official indicates that the United States may have used the R9X Hellfire variant, also known as the “Ninja” or “Flying Ginsu” missile, nicknamed for famous knives sold on 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 warhead explosives, according to Janes, a defense intelligence provider. The missile pierces and cuts its target, rather than detonating it. The design facilitates the elimination of an intended target, while reducing the likelihood of causing additional casualties.
The White House did not share details on the type of Hellfire missiles used. A reporter questioned a senior administration official during a call Monday about the nature of the missile, but the official did not respond.
The senior administration official who briefed reporters said the strike only killed al-Zawahiri, preventing civilian casualties, and the strike did not completely destroy the safehouse where al-Zawahiri was hiding with his family. . It is not known whether the missiles inflicted any structural damage beyond the patio. Two intelligence sources familiar with the matter said the CIA carried out the attack.
Hellfire missiles are air-to-surface missiles originally designed for anti-armour strikes, but later versions were used for precision drone strikes. The weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin developed the missiles with the name “Heliborne, Laser, Fire, and Forget Missile”, which evolved into the Hellfire missile, as it is now called.
The R9X variant was initially deployed in secret in 2017, according to a US Army equipment guide, and was used to kill Abu Khayr al-Masri, a member of al-Qaeda’s leadership.
Photos of the suite on social media showed the car where al-Masri was allegedly killed as having damage to the passenger compartment of the beige Kia sedan but no damage to the engine block. The roof was ripped open on the right side of the vehicle.
The Hellfire variant went public 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 an alternative way to kill former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011, but officials ultimately decided to use special forces fighters.