Aircraft and drones usually fire missiles loaded with high explosives designed to blow a target to pieces. But the missiles fired from a US drone to kill Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri on his balcony in Kabul early on Sunday morning may be different.
The US has not officially confirmed the type of weapon used in the strike other than two hellfire missiles were fired from a drone.
But military analysts said there were signs it may have been Washington’s so-called flying Ginsu R9X variant of the Hellfire missile, also nicknamed the Ninja Hellfire.
What is the R9X Hellfire?
Hellfire missiles, mostly made by Lockheed Martin, are precision-guided munitions for air-to-ground strikes that normally cause significant damage, taking down whole buildings and killing or severely injuring anyone nearby.
But the modified R9X is designed to kill individual people and not groups.
It is purported to be so precise that it can hit a single occupant of a car, leaving others unscathed.
While there are several variants of the Hellfire missile — anti-armour, anti-personnel, and other low-impact, reduced explosive variants — the R9X is different.
The variant has a solid metal warhead weighing 45 kilograms that one US official told the Wall Street Journal was like an anvil falling from the sky.
The R9X has been nicknamed the Ninja, or "flying Ginsu" after the brand of kitchen knives because right before impact six long blades emerge from the missile.
America has not confirmed it used the R9X to kill Al Zawahiri, but the scene of the attack shows very little damage around the balcony where he was killed or the rest of the building. Sources familiar with the weapon told Reuters that the damage was consistent with the R9X.
Washington has also emphasised that in the planning of the operation avoiding civilian casualties was key. This was the case after an American strike on August 29 in Kabul hit a white sedan and killed 10 civilians, including up to seven children.
But, the missile is officially top secret. The US has not acknowledged its existence or the details about how it works or when it has been used even after details leaked in 2019.
A Pentagon spokeswoman referred a Reuters query on the R9X missiles to US Special Operations Command, which would be the prime purchaser of the missile.
A Special Operations Command spokesman declined to comment on the weapons' specifics, but said the R9X is "in US Special Operations Command's munitions inventory."
Why was the R9X developed?
The R9X is believed to have been developed under the presidency of Barack Obama in a search for a more targeted means of killing.
In the fight against terrorism after 2001, the US carried out an estimated 14,000 drone strikes on militants across northern Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia until 2019.
While the US has downplayed the civilian toll of the campaigns, monitoring groups estimate that as many as 2,200 civilians were killed — including up to 454 children — and up to a further 3,900 were injured.
And so the US developed the R9X to be able to kill wanted people without harming civilians.
Where has it been used?
It appears to have been extensively used in Syria to kill militant leaders.
The New York Times reported that the Ninja Hellfire was used to kill Sayyaf Al Tunsi, a senior Al Qaeda planner involved in attacks on the West, on September 14, 2020.
In June 2020, the US killed Khaled Al Aruri, the de facto leader of Al Qaeda in Syria, with what appeared to be the same weapon.
In 2017, Al Qaeda deputy leader Abu Al Khayr Al Masri – the son-in-law of Osama bin Laden and close confidant of Al Zawahiri – was killed in such a drone strike.
But evidence suggests that in recent years it has been used regularly to kill adversaries in Syria.