The 45 kilogram missile is designed to produce lethal effects in a very small area.
Over the weekend, the U.S. killed a high-level figure in the terrorist group al-Qaeda and the man behind several attacks on the United States: Ayman al-Zawahiri. A U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) drone reportedly carried out the assassination in the Shirpur district of Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan. The strike was likely another appearance of the CIA’s Hellfire R-9X bladed missile, also known as the “Flying Ginsu.”
The U.S. killed al-Zawahiri on Saturday, July 30, in a house he had been living in for one year, and which he had not left since he and his family had moved there. According to CNN, a support network for al-Zawahiri, as well as his family members, left a trail that U.S. intelligence backtracked to pinpoint his location.
The suicide attack on the destroyer USS Cole killed 17 American servicemen and women.
Al-Zawahiri was one of the most-wanted terrorists of the 21st century, reportedly in charge of the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the suicide-bomb attack on the destroyer USS Cole in 2000. Al-Zawahiri was also the No. 2 man in charge of al-Qaeda at the time of the September 11 attacks. He and his family have been on the run for 21 years, and al-Zawahiri was on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list with a $25 million reward for his capture. (The FBI has since declared him deceased.)
On July 25, after meeting with his staff, President Joe Biden authorized a “precise tailored airstrike.” CNN reports that the attack involved two Hellfire missiles launched from an MQ-9 Reaper drone operated by the CIA. Al-Zawahiri was killed while standing on his porch, which he reportedly liked to do often. People near the attack reported a loud noise and the ground shaking.
A Hellfire missile hangs on an MQ-1 Predator drone, the predecessor to the MQ-9 Reaper used in this weekend’s attack.
Bystanders, including al-Zawahiri’s family inside the building, were reportedly unharmed—a key consideration for Biden in approving the strike. A BBC correspondent took a photo of the house shortly after the strike; it’s covered with green fabric sheets, but whether or not there is physical damage to the building is unknown.
The most likely weapon used in the attack was the AGM-114R-9X, a CIA-developed variant of the Hellfire air-to-ground missile. Originally designed to kill tanks, Hellfire now includes variants with blast fragmentation and thermobaric warheads. The 45 kilogram missile has a range of 4.4 miles and is carried by warships like the littoral combat ship, armed KC-130 tanker transports, the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, and the MQ-9 Reaper attack drone.
The CIA developed the AGM-114R-9X, also known as the R-9X, as a weapon designed to produce lethal effects in a very small area. The R-9X forgoes an explosive warhead for six stainless-steel blades that pop out just before impact with the target. The blades, combined with the high accuracy of the Hellfire missile platform, are designed to kill the target while sparing others nearby. The CIA nicknamed the R-9X “Flying Ginsu” after the Ginsu brand of knives sold on TV in the 1980s and 1990s.
A 2021 report by Bellingcat, an open-source investigation group, analyzed several attacks involving R-9X missiles. In every case, the weapon precisely struck the person it was targeting, leaving the surrounding area unscathed. The damage, though distinctive, is extremely limited. In cases where the target was struck inside a car, the damage was limited to the interior of the car.
Biden’s desire to avoid civilian casualties, and the obvious lack of damage a conventional Hellfire warhead would inflict on a building, suggests the R-9X was used to assassinate al-Zawahiri. Still, the existence of the R-9X means the CIA is willing to innovate new assassination tools when necessary, and there might be an even newer version of the Hellfire missile. Given the existing weapon was the first missile to kill with a six-pack of swords, how a new weapon might work is anyone’s guess.