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Which drone was used in Al-Zawahiri strike? Experts point to General Atomics’ Reaper

WASHINGTON – The U.S. most likely used an MQ-9 Reaper drone launched from a country in the Arabian Peninsula in the strike that killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul on July 31, security experts said.

The MQ-9 Reaper, made by a subsidiary of General Atomics, has reportedly been utilized in many notable strikes across recent presidential administrations. It may have been used in the 2020 assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, according to The New York Times.

The White House announced the successful operation on Aug. 1, without saying how it was conducted. The Associated Press reported that the CIA carried out the strike, citing five people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Neither the CIA nor the White House disclosed the type of drone used in the attack, but experts said the Reaper makes the most sense given its endurance and ωɛλρσɳ capabilities.

“It was the CIA that probably conducted the strike and they fly MQ-9 Reaper drones just like the Air Force does,” said Stacie Pettyjohn, the director of the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security, in an interview.

General Atomics produces several types of armed drones, including the Reaper, which entered service in 2007 as a successor to the Predator attack drone. As a “hunter-killer” drone, the Reaper serves as the primary offensive strike unmanned aerial vehicle for the Air Force but is also employed by other government organizations, including the CIA.

The Reaper is the Air Force’s first unmanned aerial vehicle designed to engage time-sensitive targets on the battlefield as well as provide intelligence and surveillance. They are 36 feet long with 66-foot wingspans and can fly for as long as 14 hours fully loaded with laser-guided bombs and air-to-ground missiles. They can fly twice as fast and high as MQ-1 Predators, reaching speeds of 300 mph at an altitude of up to 50,000 feet.

Even after 15 years in service, the Reaper has a corner on the market, said Dan Gettinger, the founder and former co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College.

“There’s a host of other countries and companies that are developing drones that resemble them physically and in trying to mimic its capabilities as best as possible,” Gettinger said in an interview.

He specifically pointed to the Chinese Wing Loong and Rainbow series of drones and the Turkish Anka, all of which appear similar to the Reaper.

The Reaper has been central to the U.S. government’s targeted killing program counterterrorism program, which has faced renewed criticism this year for its high civilian casualties.

The Reaper uses Hellfire missiles, precision-guided munitions for air-to-ground strikes made by Lockheed Martin that typically cause large damage to the area surrounding a target.

A senior administration official said Monday that two Hellfire missiles were used in the al-Zawahiri strike. Social media images from the attack suggest that the missiles were modified to have no warhead explosives and instead use six blades that rotate and spin to kill a target, therefore minimizing collateral damage.

The official said Monday that al-Zawahiri was the only casualty in the strike. General Atomics and the White House did not respond to requests for comment. C4ISRNET also reached out to the CIA for comment.

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