WASHINGTON (AP) — For a year, US officials have said eliminating a terrorist threat in Afghanistan without US troops on the ground would be difficult but not impossible. Last weekend, the US did just that: killing al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri with a CIA drone strike.
Other high-profile airstrikes in the past had accidentally killed innocent civilians. In this case, the US carefully chose to use a type of Hellfire missile that greatly minimized the chances of other casualties. While US officials have not publicly confirmed which variant of the Hellfire was used, experts and others familiar with counter-terrorism operations said a likely option was the top-secret Hellfire R9X — known by several nicknames, including the “knife bomb” or the “flying Ginsu.” “. ”
That potential use of the R9X, said Klon Kitchen, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former intelligence analyst, suggests the US wanted to kill al-Zawahri with “limited chance of additional death and destruction and for other relevant political reasons.”
A look at the Hellfire and how al-Zawahri was probably killed:
WHAT IS A HELLFIRE RAPEL?
Originally designed as an anti-tank missile in the 1980s, the Hellfire has been used for the past two decades by military and intelligence agencies to attack targets in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere.
The precision-guided missiles can be mounted on helicopters and unmanned drones and are used in combat worldwide. According to Ryan Brobst, an analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank, 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 level city blocks and cause significant civilian casualties,” Brobst said.
The US military has routinely used Hellfire missiles to kill high-value targets, including a senior al-Qaida leader in Syria last year and al-Qaida propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in 2011.
WHAT KILLED AL-ZAWAHRI?
The US had several options for the attack. It could have used a traditional Hellfire, a bomb dropped from a manned aircraft, or a much riskier attack by ground forces. For example, US Navy SEALs flew helicopters into Pakistan and took out Osama bin Laden in a raid.
In this case, the CIA opted for a drone strike. And while the CIA generally does not confirm its counterterrorism missions and closely monitors information about attacks it carries out, US government officials have said two Hellfire missiles were fired into the balcony of the building where al-Zawahri lived in Kabul.
Online images of the building show damage to the balcony, where the US says al-Zawahri was, but the rest of the house stands and is not badly damaged.
Unlike other Hellfire models, the R9X has no explosive charge. Instead, it has a series of six rotating blades that emerge on the final approach of a target, Kitchen said. “One of their utilities is opening vehicles and other obstacles to get to the target without using an explosive warhead,” he said.
AVOID CIVIL VICTIMS
US officials and experts made it clear this week that avoiding civilian casualties was a critical element in weapon selection.
Less than a year ago, a US drone strike — using a more conventional Hellfire missile — slammed a white Toyota Corolla sedan in a Kabul neighborhood, killing 10 civilians around and near the car, including seven children. Amid the chaotic US military withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops believed the car contained explosives and posed an immediate threat to troops on the ground. It was, military leaders said, a “tragic mistake”
A former US official said the likely choice of an R9X is an example of the government’s efforts to find ways to minimize collateral damage and prevent the loss of innocent lives. That missile is a highly accurate weapon that strikes in a very small area, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss counter-terrorism operations.
A government official said on Monday that the US was investigating the construction of the house where al-Zawahri was staying to ensure the operation could be conducted without compromising the structural integrity of the building and also to reduce the risk of killing civilians, including members of his family who were in other parts of the house.
Ultimately, choosing a missile is part of reducing the ability to kill civilians or cause other collateral damage.
“I’d say this is by far a lower-risk option,” said Tom Karako, a missile defense expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. Using the Hellfire, he said, “reflects a high degree of caution as opposed to a risk.”
WILL THE US PROVIDE UKRAN WITH DRONES THAT CAN BURN HELLFIRE RAKS?
No. While the US has provided billions of dollars in military aid to help Ukraine fight the invading Russian forces, it is wary of providing weapons that can fire deep into Russia, potentially escalating the conflict or entering the US into war. involved.
As a result, the US has so far supplied no Hellfire missiles or drones that they could fire. Instead, the US has supplied smaller so-called kamikaze drones, such as the Switchblade and Phoenix Ghost, which, instead of firing missiles, explode when they hit a target.