Ayman alZawahiri

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was on his balcony in Kabul, Afghanistan Sunday morning when two Hellfire missiles took his life, according to a senior Biden Administration official. The missiles were launched by an unmanned drone, killing him instantly.

al-Zawahiri was said to be Osama bin Laden’s “second” and his successor when an American Navy Seal team killed the terrorist in 2011.

According to CBS, the description of the strike suggests that the United States may have used R9X Hellfire missiles. These missiles have been nicknamed “the Ninja” or “Flying Ginsu” missiles. These missiles have taken their nickname from a line of “As Seen on TV” knives sold in the 1980s.

The Hellfire missiles, the RX9 variant, have been nicknamed after these knives due to their design – six blades that rotate and deploy before the missile makes impact. They are different from conventional warhead missiles in this way. Rather than simply blowing up the target, they “pierce and cut” the individual(s). The military designed this missile for its propensity for “taking out an intended target” rather than creating an explosion that could kill innocents.

However, at this time, that is supposition; a reporter in the press pool asked for more details, to which the spokesperson did not reply. The White House had not announced specifically how they targeted al-Zawahiri. The official did share that the strike had killed only the intended target, and that the strike did not “completely destroy” the safehouse where the target was in hiding with his family. The official did add that there had been no civilian casualties.

CBS reports that the CIA is the agency that carried out the mission.

The Hellfire missile has been in production for some time; the missile is manufactured by Lockheed Martin. The product was originally given the name Heliborne, Laser, Fire, and Forget Missile; over time, the term “Hellfire” became associated with the missile. The product was originally manufactured to carry out anti-armor strikes. The newest version of the Hellfire missile is now utilized in more precision strikes carried out by unmanned drone aircraft.

If the Hellfire missile was utilized to kill al-Zawahiri, it would not be the first time the missile has been used for such a strike. In 2017, the Rx9 Hellfire missile was used to kill Abu Khayr al-Masri, who was also a leader in al-Qaeda. However, it wasn’t until 2019 that the public was made aware of such a weapon. It was then utilized to target Jamal Ahmad Mohannad Al Badawi. Badawi was determined to be the mastermind behind the USS Cole attack that preceded the attack on the United States on September 11, 2001.

Some news outlets have reported that the Rx9 Hellfire missile was considered when Bin Laden had been located and it was determined the United States would kill him. However, officials eventually decided to send in the Seal team instead.

Prior to the drone strike on Sunday morning, the CIA had spent months “building a pattern of life” in regards to al-Zawahiri. Fox News reports that the intelligence agency noticed he often spent time on his balcony in Kabul alone. A Biden Administration official told the press “(al-Zawahiri spent) multiple occasions for sustained periods of time on the balcony.” It was after noticing this was an established habit of al-Zawahiri that officials ordered the strike.

On Monday, President Joe Biden told the press that al-Zawahiri “(had been) remove(d) from the battlefield once and for all.” Biden took credit for authorizing the strike.

Prior surveillance showed that al-Zawahiri rarely – if ever – left the home where he, his wife, and his grandchildren were also staying. According to Biden, when he was briefed on the activities of al-Zawahiri, he “told officials to do everything possible to lower the possibility of killing his family members or other civilians.”

Biden also said on Monday that al-Zawahiri was responsible for “coordinat(ing) al-Qaeda’s branches all around the world.” Very recently, al-Zawahiri had made videos that called for violence against the United States and its allies.