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What Zawahiri's killing tells us about the US weapons capabilities

The Hellfire R9X could have killed Ayman al-Zawahiri

AP07_21_2022_000001B US President Joe Biden | AP

The killing of al-Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri raises several questions on the evolving nature of the weapons capabilities possessed by the United States. As news agency AFP reported, he was killed by two missiles fired at his Kabul home, but pictures showed no sign of an explosion, and US officials say no one else was harmed—this could be the Hellfire R9X in action.

What is the Hellfire R9X

The AGM-114 Hellfire missiles are air-to-ground, laser-guided, subsonic missiles with significant anti-tank capacity. The Hellfire missiles have several variants, depending on its warhead, guidance system, and its physical variations. A latest and peculiar addition to the line of Hellfire missiles is the Hellfire R9X that uses pop-out sword blades to kill targets with minimal collateral damage—designed for targeted killings. According to Al Arabia, this may have been the variant of the Hellfire missile used to assassinate Iranian General Qasem Soleimani.

The Wall Street Journal had earlier carried a dedicated analysis, calling it a "secret weapon" whose existence has been the subject of speculation. The weapon was developed reportedly under the Obama administration, with focus on reducing civilian casualties as terrorists increasingly started taking women and children hostage. 

As the Journal reported, the initial modified version of the Hellfire missile carried an inert warhead. This, instead of exploding, will pound more than 100 pounds of metal through cars and buildings to kill without collateral damage. To a target, it would almost be like an anvil falling on the head, the publication quoted officials.

The R9X, according to the publication, "comes equipped with a different kind of payload: a halo of six long blades that are stowed inside and then deploy through the skin of the missile seconds before impact to ensure that it shreds anything in its tracks". Unlike a traditional Hellfire missile, it rarely left any marks—no scorches, or burns other than cracks or points of entry.

US President Joe Biden expressed hope that the killing of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri brings "one more measure of closure" to families of the victims of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.  "He will never again, never again, allow Afghanistan to become a terrorist safe haven because he is gone and we're going to make sure that nothing else happens," Biden said in an address from the White House formally announcing the operation. "This terrorist leader is no more," Biden said.

He said US intelligence officials tracked al-Zawahiri to a home in downtown Kabul where he was hiding out with his family. The president approved the operation last week and it was carried out on Sunday.

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