A look at the missile that killed Al Qaeda leader | THE DAILY TRIBUNE | KINGDOM OF BAHRAIN

A look at the missile that killed Al Qaeda leader

Agencies | Washington

The Daily Tribune – www.newsofbahrain.com

For a year, US officials have been saying that taking out a terrorist threat in Afghanistan with no American troops on the ground would be difficult, but not impossible. Last weekend, they did just that— killing Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahri with a CIA drone strike.

Other high-profile airstrikes in the past had inadvertently killed innocent civilians. In this case, the US carefully chose to use a type of Hellfire missile that greatly minimised the chance of other casualties. Although US officials have not publicly confirmed which variant of the missile was used, experts and others familiar with counterterrorism operations said a likely option was the highly-secretive Hellfire R9X— known by various nicknames, including the “knife bomb” or the "flying Ginsu".

According to Klon Kitchen, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former intelligence analyst, the potential use of the R9X suggests that the US wanted to kill Al Zawahri with “limited likelihood of collateral death and destruction, and for other relevant political reasons".

A look at the Hellfire, and how Al Zawahri likely was killed:

What is a Hellfire missile?

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

The precision-guided missiles can be mounted on helicopters and unmanned drones, and are used widely in combat around the world. More than 100,000 Hellfire missiles have been sold to the US and other countries, according to Ryan Brobst, an analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank.

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

“One of their utilities is in opening up vehicles and other obstructions to get to the target without having to use an explosive warhead,” he added. 

Avoiding civilian casualties

US officials and experts made it clear this week that avoiding civilian casualties was a crucial element in the choice of weapon.

Less than a year ago, a US drone strike— using a more conventional Hellfire missile— struck a white Toyota Corolla sedan in a Kabul neighbourhood, killing 10 civilians in the vicinity, including seven children. In the midst of the chaotic US military withdrawal from Afghanistan, American forces believed that there were explosives in the car, and that it posed an imminent threat to troops on the ground. It was, as military leaders said, a “tragic mistake”.

One former US official said the likely choice of an R9X is an example of the administration's effort to find ways to minimise collateral damage and prevent the loss of innocent life.

That missile is a very accurate weapon that strikes in a very small area, said the official, who spoke, on condition of anonymity, to discuss counterterrorism operations.

An administration official said on Monday that the US investigated the construction of the house where Al Zawahri was staying, in order to ensure that the operation could be done without threatening the structural integrity of the building, and also minimising the risks of killing civilians, including members of his family who were in other parts of the house. The choice of missile is ultimately one part of reducing the possibility of killing civilians or causing other collateral damage.

“I would say this is by far a lower-risk option," said Tom Karako, an expert on missile defence at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. According to him, using the Hellfire "reflects a high degree of caution as opposed to a riskiness". 

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

No. While the US has delivered billions of dollars in military assistance to help Ukraine fight Russian troops, it is wary of providing weapons that could fire deep into Russia, potentially escalating the conflict or drawing the US into the war.

As a result, the country has so far has not provided Hellfire missiles or drones that could fire them. Instead, they have delivered the smaller (so-called) kamikaze drones, such as the Switchblade and the Phoenix Ghost, which instead of firing missiles, explode when they hit a target.