Two Hellfire missiles fired from a drone killed the leader of Al Qaeda, causing surprisingly little damage beyond the target, suggesting that they may be a version of the missile shrouded in secrecy and used by the United States to avoid non-combatant casualties.
Over the weekend, officials stated that the missiles killed Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri while he stood on a balcony at his home in downtown Kabul, Afghanistan— the biggest blow to the militants since Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011.
A senior administration official told reporters that two Hellfire missiles were fired from an unmanned aerial vehicle at Zawahiri. The officials added that no one else was killed or wounded in the attack, as well as the fact that the CIA was responsible for the strike. The agency declined to comment.
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.
Social media images of the strike pointed to the hallmarks of a modified Hellfire called the R9X, with six blades to damage targets, sources familiar with the weapon said. It is largely used for individual targets, such as militants in Syria.
The images showed windows destroyed on the second floor, while the structure of the house remained intact, despite being hit by Hellfires.
More than 29 entities have the Hellfire missile, but very little is acknowledged, or publicly known, about the modified version.
Officials believe the R9X is less likely to cause civilian casualties, because instead of exploding, the missile cuts through targets with the sharp blades.
Drones made by General Atomics, like the MQ-9 Reaper and the MQ-1C Gray Eagle, are the only drones publicly known to carry the Hellfire missile.
A Pentagon spokeswoman referred a query on the R9X missiles to the US Special Operations Command, which would be the prime purchaser of the missile.
A Special Operations Command spokesman declined to offer specifics, but said that the R9X was "in [the] US Special Operations Command's munitions inventory".
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