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Death by Ninja Missile: CIA Drone Kills al-Zawahiri

Hellfire Ninja
An AGM-114 Hellfire missile hung on the rail of an US Air Force (USAF) MQ-1L Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) is inscribed with, "IN MEMORY OF HONORABLE RONALD REAGAN."

The United States has been hunting for Ayman al-Zawahiri since the 9/11 attacks. He was (then) the #2 in al-Qaeda under Usama bin Laden but then took over the group after the U.S. took down his Pakistan safe house in 2011. The search is now over as a CIA drone attacked and killed al-Zawahiri on a balcony in Kabul on Saturday night. 

After U.S. intelligence confirmed his death, President Biden announced his death on Monday night. 

“He carved a trail of murder and violence against American citizens, American service members, American diplomats, and American interests,” Biden said from the White House. “Now, justice has been delivered. And this terrorist leader is no more.” 

“After relentlessly seeking Zawahiri for years under Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump, our intelligence community located Zawahiri earlier this year,” the president added. “He had moved to downtown Kabul to reunite with members of his immediate family.”

“I authorized a precision strike that would remove him from the battlefield, once and for all,” Biden said.

“Patient and Persistent” Intelligence Work Finally Pays Off

CIA Intelligence and counter-terrorist officials had been hunting al-Zawahiri for years, but as a result of “careful patient and persistent” toiling in the shadows, the intelligence community finally located al-Zawahiri.

He was thought to be, at times, in tribal lands in Pakistan or just across the border in Afghanistan. But he went unseen until earlier this year. After the peace deal was signed by the Taliban with the United States, American intelligence operatives began searching for evidence that al-Qaeda was operating within Afghanistan’s borders. 

Early this year, they identified that al-Zawahiri’s wife, his daughter, and her children had moved into a safe house in Kabul and later identified al-Zawahiri as being present at the same location. National Security adviser Jake Sullivan began briefing President Biden on their findings. 

Identifying a “High-Value Target”

Once al-Zawahiri arrived at the safe house, intelligence officials quickly learned that he never left but was identified walking along the balcony. He was basically hiding in plain sight, in a high-security, high-walled compound in downtown Kabul, in the well-to-do neighborhood of Sherpour

This was once the home to foreign embassies and diplomats, but now the Taliban’s higher ranking officials live in rather plush surroundings. CIA officials were watching the house closely and observed Zawahiri’s wife using well-known “tradecraft” at trying to throw off any surveillance on her and not pinpoint the house’s location. 

CIA officials began briefing the president and were able to find blueprints of the house, and built a scale model of the home. But the president was adamant that any drone strike was not to harm any civilians, Zawahiri’s wife, daughter, his grandchildren or any Taliban officials. 

Drone Strike Leaves Taliban Flatfooted 

After President Biden authorized the strike in late July, CIA officials waited until the target gave them the opportunity to act. At 06:18 local time (9:48 p.m. Saturday in Washington), an American drone fired two Hellfire missiles, hitting the balcony of al-Zawahiri ‘s home, killing him. Members of his family were unharmed, intelligence officials said.

Photos taken shortly after the drone strike showed the windows of the house appeared to have been blown out, but surprisingly the house was virtually intact. But the Haqquani network which is part of the Taliban, quickly moved to conceal that al-Zawahiri was at the home and threw tarps over the windows that had been blown out. 

Taliban fighters appeared and surrounding the house, they quickly threatened at gunpoint any press members that attempted to approach the scene.  

Judging from the fact that there was little damage to the house, it is widely believed that a special version of the Hellfire missile was used, one without an explosive warhead. This version – called the AGM-114R9X – instead deploys six blades which swing out from the side of the missile as it approaches the target.

What is the AGM-114R9X?

The AGM-114R9X was developed during the Obama administration when the president became alarmed at the number of civilians that were killed during drone strikes against terrorist leaders who hid in civilian areas. 

With a non-explosive warhead and pinpoint accuracy, civilians – even those close by the target – would not likely suffer any injuries in the event of a strike. And as U.S. drone strikes became common, terrorist leaders moved into urban centers, surrounded by innocent civilians knowing that the U.S. would not strike them in crowded neighborhoods.

The AGM-114R9X, known as the “Ninja” missile or the “Ginsu” missile, changed all of that. Nicknamed that because of the blades that deploy just before impact, the six-bladed, 100-lb missile will decimate and shred a target as it hits the target at about 700 mph, but little else will be affected. 

Steve Balestrieri is a 1945 National Security Columnist. He served as a US Army Special Forces NCO, and Warrant Officer before injuries forced his early separation. In addition to writing for and other military news organizations, he has covered the NFL for for over 11 years. His work was regularly featured in the Millbury-Sutton Chronicle and Grafton News newspapers in Massachusetts.

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Steve Balestrieri is a 1945 National Security Columnist. He has served as a US Special Forces NCO and Warrant Officer before injuries forced his early separation. In addition to writing for 1945, he covers the NFL for and his work was regularly featured in the Millbury-Sutton Chronicle and Grafton News newspapers in Massachusetts.