Reports have begun to emerge that the US military used a warhead-less missile, believed equipped with six razor-like blades extending from the fuselage that slices through its target, but does not explode, to kill Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The R9X is a Hellfire missile variant with a kinetic warhead with pop-out blades instead of explosives, used against specific human targets; its lethality is due to 45 kg of dense material with six blades flying at high speed, to crush and slice the targeted person—it has been called the 'Ninja bomb' and the 'Flying Ginsu'.
With no high explosives used in the Hellfire R9X missile, no blast is created, thereby minimising the risk of collateral damage and civilian casualties.
Never publicly acknowledged by the Pentagon or CIA -- the two US agencies known to undertake targeted assassinations of extremist leaders -- the R9X first appeared in March 2017 when Al-Qaeda senior leader Abu al-Khayr al-Masri was killed by a drone strike while travelling in a car in Syria.
Zawahiri was killed in a US strike in Afghanistan over the weekend, the biggest blow to the terrorist group since its founder Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011.
Zawahiri had been in hiding for years and the operation to locate and kill him was the result of "careful patient and persistent" work by the counter-terrorism and intelligence community, a senior administration official told reporters.
Until the US announcement, Zawahiri had been rumored variously to be in Pakistan's tribal area or inside Afghanistan.
What is the R9X missile?
In the last few years, the US military has carried out a series of airstrikes using a secretive weapon.
To this day, the US authorities have made barely any public statements about the R9X Hellfire missile.
It appears to be used as a targeted assassination weapon against high-value targets: commanders and other prominent individuals.
Over the last four years there have only been 11 confirmed cases involving the weapon. Many of these took place in Syria, although the R9X missile is believed to have been used in Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.
At first glance, the R9X missile, described as “a weapon that combines medieval brutality with advanced technology,” by the Wall Street Journal, appears to be an important breakthrough in the U.S. counter-terrorism arsenal.
Despite its Hellfire connotation, the R9X missile is more like a long-range sniper round than its explosive cousins. The payload allows a drone operator based in the United States to target terrorist leaders anywhere in the world to an accuracy of only a few feet, and potentially without any collateral damage.
A former US official expressed hopes the weapon could even solve a “right seat, left seat” problem, with the missile, in fact, being capable of discriminately targeting passengers in a moving vehicle.
But there are downsides, including a failure to adequately address ethical and human rights questions and a lack of clarity about if it can be deployed effectively in future battles.
Missile was developed to kill bin Laden
The six-bladed configuration has reportedly earned the nicknames "ninja bomb" and "the flying Ginsu," the latter being a reference to a brand of knives sold through television infomercials starting in the 1970s.
The advertisements featured energetic pitchmen slicing through everything from fruits and vegetables to wood blocks and commercial plastic piping.
The weapon was developed under the Obama administration to reduce civilian casualties from US counter-terrorism strikes abroad, and a similar missile was considered for the successful mission in 2011 that killed then al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden
The Al Qaeda founder was regularly surrounded by family members, including women and children, presenting a need for extreme precision in any possible air strike.
The specialized Hellfire could have made it easier to confirm Bin Laden's death, including through subsequent DNA collection, something that U.S. personnel reportedly did following the 2011 raid.