What are the high-tech precision missiles used to kill al Qaeda’s most wanted? | World News

US officials have confirmed that Osama bin Laden’s second-in-command Ayman al Zawahiri was killed by two drone-fired missiles on Sunday.

Analysts believe they were a new variation of the hellfire missile called the R9X, which have been used in several other US assassination operations across the Middle East.

Usually launched from drones or helicopters, the R9X has a warhead loaded with half a dozen blades that can kill a target instantly, without causing an explosion or killing people around them.

How did the US find and kill him?

The CIA has confirmed that two missiles struck Ayman al Zawahiri’s safehouse in Kabul’s downtown Sherpur area at 6.18am local time on 31 July.

They were fired from a drone and hit him while he was standing on the balcony, but the precise nature of the missiles meant none of his relatives or any civilians were killed, a senior administration official said.

The suspected house in Kabul that was hit by a US drone strike on Sunday
The suspected target of the US airstrike on Sunday in Kabul

The CIA previously believed al Zawahiri was hiding in Pakistan, but received intelligence in April that his wife and children had moved to Kabul using “terrorist tradecraft” that meant they went undetected.

After a period of surveillance, they were able to confirm he was also staying at the house.

Having watched him for several months, they established he never left the building, but often stood out on the balcony.

An operation was first proposed to President Joe Biden on 1 July, with a detailed one presented to him on 25 July, taking “every step to minimise civilian casualties”.

Mr Biden requested “granular detail”, including the nature of the building’s construction and how the light hit it, reports claim.

Pic: AP
Ayman al-Zawahiri. Pic: AP

What is a R9X ‘ninja’ missile?

The White House has confirmed a drone was used to release two hellfire missiles.

Analysing pictures of the house in Kabul on social media, experts say they could have been R9X ones and the drone was likely to be an MQ-1 – or a “predator”.

Former CIA director General David Petraeus told CNN there are several US bases in the Middle East the drone could have been launched from.

After the US pulled out of Afghanistan a year ago, the CIA no longer has any bases inside the country and are forced to conduct so-called “over-the-horizon” operations instead.

A hellfire missile released from a helicopter in Taiwan
A hellfire missile released from a helicopter in Taiwan

Professor Michael Clarke, defence analyst and former director-general of RUSI, told Sky News: “The R9X is a pretty new variation of the basic hellfire missile, which goes back around 40 years and was designed in the 1970s.

“Hellfire missiles all depend on the warhead you put on them.

“The idea of the R9X is that it stabs the person to death with these rotating blades.

“It sounds awful, but it’s a very quick and precise way to kill somebody, so that unless you were standing directly behind the target, it wouldn’t kill anybody else.”

They are often nicknamed “ninjas” or “flying Ginsus” after the brand of steak knives popularised by adverts in the US in the 1970s and 1980s.

The missiles are very small – no more than 4.5ft (1.4m) long – and weigh a maximum of 50kg (110lbs).

They can be fired up to 7.5 miles (12km) and use a combination of laser and MMW (millimeter wave) technology.

The MMW radar or “fire and forget” technology, means operatives can select their target using a laser beam and then retreat without having to keep it focused on the target.

“It identifies the target and finds its own way there,” Professor Clarke says.

“It doesn’t have to be a straight line and it means you can get out of the way. In terms of guidance, it’s the best you can hope to have.”

MQ9 drone over Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan in 2009
MQ9 drone over Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan in 2009

Where have they been used before?

Initially developed during Barack Obama’s presidency amid criticism of too many civilian casualties in the US War on Terror, the use of an R9X missile was first reported by the Wall Street Journal in 2019.

A CIA airstrike on Syria’s Idlib province in February 2017 saw it used to kill al Qaeda’s then-second ranking leader Abu al Khayr a Masri – Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, the newspaper said.

Al Masri was killed while in his car.

Al-Masri's Kia Sedan after the strike. Pic: Mr Raza Shaikh/Twitter
Al Masri’s Kia Sedan after the strike. Pic: Mr Raza Shaikh/Twitter

The R9X tore a hole in the roof of the car and shattered the windscreen, but the rest of the vehicle was left intact.

Experts have since suggested the R9X is so precise it could kill the driver of a car and spare the passenger.

They were also used in a US airstrike on Yemen in January 2019 that killed Jamal al Badawi, one of the al Qaeda members suspected of the deadly bombing of US Navy destroyer Cole in 2000.

Read more:
From middle-class doctor to the world’s most wanted: Who was Ayman al-Zawahiri?

R9Xs have now been reportedly used by the US in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia.

“There’s been lots of secrecy around the R9X because the death it inflicts sounds so awful,” Professor Clarke adds.

“But it’s just the latest in a long line of improvements on the hellfire missile – and by improvement we mean more accurate.”

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