Al-Zawahiri sat on his balcony in Kabul. How Hellfire missiles took him out?

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

The missiles were launched by an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, and killed him instantly.

The nature of the attack, as described by a senior government official, indicates that the US may have used the R9X Hellfire variant, also known as the “Ninja” or “Flying Ginsu” missile, nicknamed for the famous blades sold on TV in the 80s. This variant has been used in the recent past to assassinate other extremist leaders.

The R9X Hellfire has six blades that spin at high speed and are deployed pre-impact — instead of conventional explosives with warheads, according to Janes, a defense intelligence provider. The missile pierces and cuts its target, rather than blowing it up. The design makes it easier to take out an intended target, while reducing the chance of causing additional casualties.

Ayman Al-Zawahiri in an undated image from video / Credit: Maher Attar/Sygma via Getty Images

Ayman Al-Zawahiri in an undated image from video / Credit: Maher Attar/Sygma via Getty Images

The White House has not shared any details about the type of Hellfire missiles used. A reporter inquired about the nature of the missile during a phone call Monday, but the official did not answer.

The senior government official who briefed reporters said the attack killed al-Zawahiri alone, avoiding civilian casualties, and that the strike did not completely destroy the hiding place where al-Zawahiri was hiding with his family. It is unclear whether the missiles caused any structural damage beyond the patio. Two intelligence sources familiar with the case said the CIA carried out the attack.

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 named “Heliborne, Laser, Fire, and Forget Missile”, which evolved into the Hellfire missile, as it is now known.

The R9X variant was initially deployed in secret in 2017, according to a US military equipment guide, and was used to assassinate Abu Khayr al-Masri, a member of the al-Qaeda leadership.

Photos of the aftermath on social media showed the car where al-Masri was allegedly murdered as damage to the passenger compartment of the beige Kia sedan but no damage to the engine block. The roof was blown open on the right side of the vehicle.

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

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

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

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 eventually decided to deploy special forces.

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