When President Biden confirmed monday that had a US drone strike killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri at a villa in Kabul, Afghanistan, he said the operation was “carefully planned” to kill only the people old terrorist mastermind. “None of his family members were injured and there were no civilian casualties,” Biden said.
Drone attacks, usually carried out with laser-guided Hellfire missiles, usually leave craters in the ground, but post-strike photos of the house al-Zawahiri’s residence showed minimal damage. That led to widespread speculation that the CIA killed al-Zawahiri with a modified Hellfire called the R9X — and popularly known as a “Ninja Bomb,” “Knife Bomb,” or the “Flying Ginsu,” a tribute to a popular infomercial. knife that could supposedly cut through anything. Here’s how the US apparently managed such a precision attack:
What is the R9X?
The R9X is a specific one of AGM-114 Hellfire, a type of precision guided missile originally developed in the 80s by Lockheed Martin as the anti-tank “Heliborne, Laser, Fire, and Forget Missile”, later shortened to Hellfire. They are now usually fired from drones, helicopters and other aircraft. Unlike most Hellfires, the R9X does not have a conventional explosive warhead. Instead, it has six rotating blades that cut through the target.
“It can do enough damage to destroy most targets like vehicles and buildings, while not doing enough damage to level city blocks and cause significant civilian casualties,” Ryan Brobst, an analyst with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, tells The Associated Press.
The R9X was developed in 2011 in response to then-President Barack Obama’s emphasis on avoiding civilian deaths in drone strikes against terrorist targets in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and other conflict zones. It was created “for the express purpose of reducing civilian casualties,” a former U.S. official told The Wall Street Journal in 2019, when the paper confirmed the existence of the R9X and its use in at least two specific attacks, one by the Pentagon and the other by the CIA.
However, the R9X was used as early as 2017 against al-Zawahiri deputy Abu Khayr al-Masri in Syria. Photos of the car hit by the Hellfire variant showed a hole where the missile cut through the roof and mauled the occupants, but no sign of an explosion.
How does it work?
As soon as the third-party drone operator gets live visual confirmation from the target and cleared to fire, the Hellfire will follow laser guidance to the person marked for death. Before impact, the drone’s six sharp blades are deployed and begin to spin rapidly using the kinetic energy of the 1.5-meter-long rocket – hence the nickname “Flying Ginsu”.
The R9X is “obviously” something developed by “a couple of guys” who “got high as balls, looked at each other — and watched some Acme cartoons — and said, ‘Hey, what if we could drop an anvil of the sky?'” quipped Dan Smock, a US Army veteran and former USAID employee who… told Task & Purpose he had lived in the house of Kabul where al-Zarahawi had been murdered. “And then the guy next to him had just finished watching infomercials for some reason, because that’s his thing, and he’s like, ‘Yeah, but what if we turn it into a Slap Chop anvil?'”
How did the US find al-Zawahiri and know where he would stand, alone?
US officials reportedly followed al-Zawahiri’s wife and children to the villa, in Kabul’s upscale Sherpur neighborhood, only to learn that al-Zawahiri had also moved in. Former senior CIA official Marc Polymeropoulos told BBC News it is likely that the US used human spies, intelligence and other methods to confirm that al-Zawahiri was there. An official of the Biden administration too said the US had investigated the construction of the house to make sure the drone strike would not threaten its structural integrity or kill people in other parts of the villa.
Officials also said US intelligence had studied al-Zawahiri’s “pattern of life” in the house to discover his habits, and that’s how they learned that al-Zawahiri spent time alone on the top balcony each morning. “Reports said the CIA had information that he liked being on the balcony, and I thought, ‘Of course he would, it was a nice balcony'” Kiel told the guard.
The al-Zawahiri strike “sounds like a model application” of a targeted murder, William Banks of Syracuse University Institute for Security Policy and Law tells BBC News. “It sounds like in this case they were very careful and deliberate in finding him in a location and at a time when they could only hit him and not harm another person.”
Is al-Zawahiri really dead this time?
This is not the first report on al-Zawahiri’s death, but National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said: the US has “visual confirmation” that he died in the strike. The Taliban, which has ruled Afghanistan since the US withdrew and the allied government collapsed last summer, has confirmed and criticized the strike, and on Thursday the group insisted they were “unaware of the arrival and stay” of al- Zawahri in Afghanistan.
The US says al-Zawahiri was stay at the home of a top assistant of Sirajuddin Haqqania militant leader and top deputy to Supreme Taliban leader Mullah Haibatallah Akhundzada.
It is “bizarre” to think that al-Zawahiri died so soon after his decades of plotting death and destruction, Kiel tells Task & Purpose. “This morning when the story came out, I read it… and I’m like, you go from ‘That’s weird’ to ‘That’s really surreal’ to ‘That’s so funny’ to ‘Where’s my breakfast bourbon?’ “
“I finally figured out the bow in my head”, Keel added. “I’m like, let’s rethink: a two-time Iraq veteran lives in a house that was probably built with opium funds, then rented out to the Taliban who then put the leader of Al Qaeda in it as an Airbnb and he was knocked in by a Hellfire. That’s a weird loop.”