Two Hellfire missiles ended al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s life in a safehouse balcony in a wealthy neighborhood in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, at 6:18 am 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 signals that the US may have used the R9X Hellfire variant, also known as the “Ninja” or “Flying Ginsu” missile, nicknamed for knives famously sold on TV in the 1980s. This variant has been used in the recent past to kill other extremist leaders.
The R9X Hellfire has six blades that rotate 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 blowing it up. The design makes it easier to take out an intended target, while lessening the likelihood of causing additional casualties.
The White House has not shared details about the type of Hellfire missiles used. A reporter asked a senior administration official on a call Monday about the nature of the missile, but the official did not answer.
The senior administration official who briefed reporters said the strike only killed al-Zawahiri, avoiding civilian casualties and that the strike did not completely destroy the safehouse where al-Zawahiri was hiding with his family. It is unclear whether the missiles inflicted structural damage beyond the patio. Two intelligence sources familiar with the matter said the CIA carried out the strike.
Hellfire missiles are air-to-surface missiles initially designed for anti-armor strikes, but later versions have been used for precision drone strikes. The arms 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 known.
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 aftermath on social media showed the car where al-Masri was purportedly killed as having 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.
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.