When the US killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, the chief of Al Qaeda, on Saturday, July 30, it did so with what US president Joe Biden called “a precision strike.” A single Hellfire missile, fired from a drone, targeted al-Zawahiri in his house in Kabul, hitting him and him alone. No civilians or members of his family were killed, Biden said.
Ordinarily, any kind of explosion from a Hellfire missile risks civilian casualties; a New York Times investigation last December estimated that at least 1,300 civilians have died in US air strikes since 2014. But the Hellfire R9X aimed at al-Zawahiri carried no explosives. Instead, the R9Xs are said to be what a former Pentagon adviser called “fancy things with blades”: missiles with six 18-inch-long, retractable blades that can both crush and shred their targets.
Not much is known about the R9X, a secret weapon in use since 2017. But the blades’ ability to tear through walls and metal have given the missile a nickname: the “flying Ginsu,” after a set of knives that were once hawked to legendary success in the 1970s and 1980s. Infomercials showed the knives cutting through tin cans, wood, shoes, and lead pipes. The Ginsu, the ads promised, would make every other knife obsolete; the R9X, presumably, wants to do the same for missiles.
Berkshire Hathaway’s knife to end all knives
The Ginsu knife was developed by Quikut, a division of an Ohio-based firm called Scott Fetzer Company that dates back to 1914. Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett’s conglomerate, bought Scott Fetzer in 1986 for $400 million.
By then, the Ginsu was already a television sensation, having made more than $30 million in sales. The infomercials that sold them were often on late night, but they were so compelling that Jerry Seinfeld talked about them on “The Tonight Show.” The advertising company, Dial Media, was deft at plugging the knives, mentioning the price, and then exclaiming, “But wait, there’s more!”
Dial also pioneered the use of 1-800 telephone numbers to take orders. (“Operators are standing by.”) The name Ginsu suggested a Japanese origin, perhaps linked to bygone artisanal samurai blades, but it was dreamed up in the middle of the night by a Dial copywriter. It didn’t really mean anything, one of Dial’s executives once said. “We like to say that it means, ‘I never have to work again.’” The Ginsu is still on the market today.
But wait, there’s more!
The Internet holds no reliable images of an intact Hellfire R9X. A Bellingcat researcher once linked to a video of the remains of a crushed R9X, but the blades were missing.
The US has used the R9X on several occasions in the past, including in 2017, when another Al Qaeda leader was killed in a car traveling through Syria. Photos taken after the hit showed sharp slices through the metal roof of the car.
But the R9X, like the Ginsu knife, is only as good as its user. Letta Tayler, an associate director in the crisis and conflict division of Human Rights Watch, pointed out that the drones launching the R9Xs can make mistakes. “The R9X is only going to be as good as the intelligence used to guide it,” Tayler said in an interview. “Even if the US determines it wants to kill a particular person, that doesn’t mean that it can legally do so.”