Hellfire: How the CIA identified and killed Al-Qaeda leader Zawahiri

Two Hellfire missiles ended al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s life in a safehouse balcony in a wealthy neighborhood in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, at 6:18 a.m. Sunday, a senior administration official said Monday.


The missiles were launched by an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, killing him instantly.


The nature of the strike as described by a senior administration official signals that the U.S. may have used the R9X Hellfire variant, also known as the “Ninja” or “Flying Ginsu” missile, nicknamed for knives famously sold on TV in the 1980s. This variant has been used in the recent past to kill other extremist leaders.


The R9X Hellfire has six blades that rotate at high speed and deploy before impact — instead of conventional warhead explosives, according to Janes, a defense intelligence provider. The missile pierces and cuts its target, rather than blowing it up. The design makes it easier to take out an intended target, while lessening the likelihood of causing additional casualties.

Hellfire R9X: All You Need To Know About 'Secret Weapon' Used By US To Kill Zawahiri
R9X Hellfire

The White House has not shared details about the type of Hellfire missiles used. A reporter asked a senior administration official on a call Monday about the nature of the missile, but the official did not answer.


The senior administration official who briefed reporters said the strike only killed al-Zawahiri, avoiding civilian casualties and that the strike did not completely destroy the safehouse where al-Zawahiri was hiding with his family. It is unclear whether the missiles inflicted structural damage beyond the patio. Two intelligence sources familiar with the matter said the CIA carried out the strike.

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Hellfire missiles are air-to-surface missiles initially designed for anti-armor strikes, but later versions have been used for precision drone strikes. The arms manufacturer Lockheed Martin developed the missiles with the name “Heliborne, Laser, Fire, and Forget Missile,” which evolved into the Hellfire missile, as it is now known.


The R9X variant was initially deployed in secret in 2017, according to a U.S. Army equipment guide, and was used to kill Abu Khayr al-Masri, a member of al Qaeda’s leadership.


Photos of the aftermath on social media showed the car where al-Masri was purportedly killed as having damage to the passenger compartment of the beige Kia sedan but no damage to the engine block. The roof was blown open on the right side of the vehicle.

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The Hellfire variant became public knowledge after it was used in 2019 to take out Jamal Ahmad Mohammad Al Badawi, who was behind the 2000 USS Cole Bombing.


The Wall Street Journal reported in 2019 that a weapon similar to the R9X was considered as an alternative way to kill former al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011, but officials ultimately decided to use special forces fighters.


How the CIA identified Zawahiri

Ayman al-Zawahiri had been in hiding for years and the operation to locate and kill him was the result of “careful patient and persistent” work by the counter-terrorism and intelligence community, a senior administration official told reporters.


Until the U.S. announcement, Zawahiri had been rumored variously to be in Pakistan’s tribal area or inside Afghanistan.

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Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the official provided the following details on the operation:

For several years, the U.S. government had been aware of a network that it assessed supported Zawahiri, and over the past year, following the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, officials had been watching for indications of Al Qaeda’s presence in the country.


This year, officials identified that Zawahiri’s family – his wife, his daughter and her children – had relocated to a safe house in Kabul and subsequently identified Zawahiri at the same location.


Over several months, intelligence officials grew more confident that they had correctly identified Zawahiri at the Kabul safe house and in early April started briefing senior administration officials. Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor, subsequently briefed President Joe Biden.


“We were able to build a pattern of life through multiple independent sources of information to inform the operation,” the official said.


Once Zawahiri arrived at the Kabul safe house, officials were not aware of him leaving it and they identified him on its balcony – where he was ultimately struck – on multiple occasions, the official said.

Hellfire: How the CIA identified and killed Al-Qaeda leader Zawahiri

Officials investigated the construction and nature of the safe house and scrutinized its occupants to ensure the United States could confidently conduct an operation to kill Zawahiri without threatening the structural integrity of the building and minimizing the risk to civilians and Zawahiri’s family, the official said.


In recent weeks, the president convened meetings with key advisors and Cabinet members to scrutinize the intelligence and evaluate the best course of action. On July 1, Biden was briefed on a proposed operation in the White House Situation Room by members of his cabinet including CIA Director William Burns


Biden “asked detailed questions about what we knew and how we knew it” and closely examined a model of the safe house the intelligence community had built and brought to the meeting.


He asked about lighting, weather, construction materials, and other factors that could affect the success of the operation, the official said. The president also requested analysis of the potential ramifications of a strike in Kabul.


A tight circle of senior inter-agency lawyers examined the intelligence reporting and confirmed that Zawahiri was a lawful target based on his continuing leadership of Al Qaeda.


On July 25, the president convened his key Cabinet members and advisors to receive a final briefing and discuss how killing Zawahiri would affect America’s relationship with the Taliban, among other issues, the official said. After soliciting views from others in the room, Biden authorized “a precise tailored air strike” on the condition that it minimize the risk of civilian casualties.


The strike was ultimately carried out at 9:48 p.m. ET (0148 GMT) on July 30 by a drone firing so-called “hellfire” missiles.

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