Today marks the most public use yet of the CIA’s deadliest secret weapons – the AGM-114R9X, Hellfire missile.
While the explosive warheads of conventional missiles risk collateral damage when they’re aimed at targets in built-up areas, the R9X uses pop-out “swords” that can completely shred a human body while leaving someone standing a few feet from the victim completely unharmed.
There’s no official confirmation that the R9X exists, but there has been evidence of its use in Syria in 2017 and 2019. Similar reports have emerged from Libya, Somalia and Yemen.
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In February 2017 Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, an Al-Qaeda deputy leader, was killed in what appeared to be a drone strike in Syria’s Idlib Province. However, there was no evidence of an explosion.
There were none of the tell-tale scorch marks or shrapnel damage that might be expected. Instead, the roof of his car was torn open, as if a giant razor had been used to slash it open, while the front and back of the vehicle were almost unmarked.
In today’s attack, on Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, all the unique hallmarks of the super-secret missile were evident.
One neighbour said she heard a loud bang from the direction of al-Zawahiri’s house on Sunday morning, but saw none of the smoke or flames associated with a conventional bomb or missile attack.
US military sources confirmed that the deadly strike had taken place, but stopped short of confirming the existence of the top-secret weapon.
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A US official told reporters that on the morning of Sunday, July 31, al-Zawahiri had been standing alone on the balcony of his Kabul residence, when a US drone launched two Hellfires – killing him instantly.
The statement didn't specify which variant of the Hellfire missile was used, but it's widely believed to be the R9X.
The unique weapon is believed to be guided to its target visually by a remote operator, communicating with the missile’s guidance system through a dedicated data pod slung under the wing of the drone aircraft.
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The AGM-114 has a payload housing roughly eighteen inches in length, allowing the swing-out blades to create a kill zone around three to three-and-a-half feet wide.
The impact of the missile’s five-foot-long body travelling at 1,000 miles per hour also shouldn’t be discounted when it comes to assessing the weapon’s death-dealing potential.
The missile, popularly called the Ninja bomb or the Flying Ginsu might carry less risk of causing collateral casualties but human rights groups are still opposed to its use.
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Letta Tayler, an Associate Director of the Crisis and Conflict Division of Human Rights Watch, told Bellingcat: “Part of the danger here is that these weapons seem so failsafe […] but the R9X is only going to be as good as the intelligence used to guide it.
“Even if the US determines it wants to kill a particular person, that doesn’t mean that it can legally do so.”
Over the last three years there have only been 11 confirmed cases involving the R9X. But the weapon's extraordinary success at preventing the propaganda 'own goals' of collateral damage suggests we could be seeing a lot more of it.
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