Explainer: A look at the missile that killed the al-Qaeda leader

WASHINGTON (AP) – For a year, US officials have said it would be difficult but not impossible to pull out a terrorist threat in Afghanistan without US troops on the ground. Last weekend, the US did just that – killing al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahari in a CIA drone strike.

Innocent civilians were unintentionally killed in other high-profile air strikes in the past. In this case, the US carefully chose to use a type of Hellfire missile that greatly reduced the likelihood of other casualties. Although US officials have not publicly confirmed what type of Hellfire was used, experts and others familiar with counter-terrorism operations said a possible alternative was the highly secret Hellfire R9X – known as the “knife bomb”. Or is known by various nicknames, including “Flying Jinsu”. ,

Clone Kitchen, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former intelligence analyst, said the possible use of R9X suggests that the US wanted to kill al-Zawahari “for collateral death and limited likelihood of destruction, and for other relevant political reasons.”

A look at the fires of Hell, and the possibility of al-Zawahari being killed:

What is Hellfire Missile?

Originally designed as an anti-tank missile in the 1980s, the Hellfire has been used by the military and intelligence agencies to strike targets in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere over the past two decades.

Precision-guided missiles can be mounted on helicopters and unmanned drones and are widely used in warfare around the world. According to analyst Ryan Brobst of the Washington think tank Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, more than 100,000 Hellfire missiles have been sold to the US and other countries.

“It can do enough damage to destroy most targets, such as vehicles and buildings, while not doing enough damage to a city-level block and cause significant civilian casualties,” Brobst said.

The US military has regularly used Hellfire missiles to hit high-value targets, including Anwar al-Awlaki, a senior al-Qaeda leader in Syria last year and Anwar al-Qaeda propagandist in Yemen in 2011.

Who killed al-Zawahari?

America had several options for the attack. It could have been a conventional Hellfire, a bomb dropped from a manned aircraft, or a far more risky attack by ground forces. For example, US Navy personnel flew helicopters into Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden in a raid.

In this case, the CIA opted for a drone strike. And while the CIA generally does not verify its counter-terrorism missions and is closely aware of the attacks it does, US government officials have said that two Hellfire missiles were fired on the balcony of the building where Al -Jawahari was living in Kabul.

Online images of the building show damage to the balcony where the US says al-Zawahari was, but the rest of the house is standing and not badly damaged.

Unlike other models of the Hellfire, the R9X does not carry an explosive payload. Instead, it has a series of six rotating blades that emerge on its final approach to the target, Kitchen said. “One of their usefulness is to open vehicles and other obstacles to reach targets without using an explosive warhead,” he said.

avoid civilian casualties

US officials and experts clarified this week that avoiding civilian casualties is an important element in the choice of weapons.

Less than a year ago, a US drone attack – using a more conventional Hellfire missile – struck a white Toyota Corolla sedan in a neighborhood of Kabul and killed 10 civilians in and around the car, including seven children. Went. Amid the chaotic withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, US forces believed the car contained explosives and posed an imminent threat to troops on the ground. It was, military leaders said, a “tragic mistake”.

A former US official said the possible choice of R9X is an example of the administration’s effort to find ways to minimize collateral damage and prevent the loss of innocent lives. That missile is a very precise weapon that strikes over a very small area, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss counter-insurgency operations.

An administration official said on Monday that the US was investigating the construction of the house where al-Zawahari was staying to ensure that operations could be carried out without endangering the building’s structural integrity and the safety of civilians, including civilians. to reduce the risk of murder. His family who were in other parts of the house.

The choice of missile is part of reducing the chances of ultimately killing civilians or causing other collateral damage.

“I would say it’s a low-risk option,” said Tom Caraco, a missile defense expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. Using Hellfire, he said, “reflects a high degree of caution as opposed to risk.”

Is the US providing Ukraine with drones that can fire Hellfire missiles?

No, while the US has given Ukraine billions of dollars in military aid to help it fight invading Russian troops, it is wary of providing weapons that could fire deep into Russia, potentially escalating conflict. Or drag America into the war.

As a result, the US has not yet provided Hellfire missiles or drones that can fire them. Instead, the US has delivered smaller, so-called kamikaze drones like the Switchblade and Phoenix Ghost, which, instead of firing missiles, detonate when they hit a target.