US forces reportedly conducted an airstrike on a minivan in a north-western Syrian city on Tuesday, killing two targets just 10 miles away from where former ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in a raid in October.
The targeted strike was said to have involved the use of a secret ‘Ninja’ missile, known as the AGM-114R9X, which substitutes the explosive warhead found on standard missiles for a set of six folding sword-like blades, designed to smash through buildings and vehicles with minimal civilian casualties.
According to The Warzone, the hit was carried out in Atmeh, located in Syria’s Idlib province, which is around five miles from the Turkish border and fewer than 10 miles from Barisha, where al-Baghdadi was found to be hiding in a compound.
It’s been reported that two people were killed, however their identities have not yet been released, nor as any information to suggest which terrorist groups the individuals were believed to have been affiliated with, if any.
Tentative reports online suggest at least one of the victims killed may have been Abu Ahmad al-Muhajir, a member of Hayat Tahrir Al Sham – or HTS - an offshoot of Al Qaeda who separated from the terrorist outfit in Syria back in 2017.
Pictures of the mangled van have been circulating on social media, showing extensive damage to the front passenger side but otherwise limited damage to the rest of the car – telltales signs the R9X was employed for the occasion.
Local reports say the men inside the car were ‘mashed’ by the impact, again alluding to the fact a non-explosive warhead was used by military officials.
The R9X is designed to to reduce unintended casualties caused by other more conventional missiles that detonate and engulf both targets and their surroundings.
The devastating so called 'flying Ginsu', was reportedly used to kill deputy leader of Al-Qaeda Abu Khayr al-Masri in February 2017 – and the scenes from Tuesday’s attack bear several similarities.
Al-Masri was killed while driving a car in Al Mastouma, Syria. The city is also in province of Idlib and is around 30 miles south of Atmeh.
Al Masri's car also suffered the most damage toward the front passenger side, with minimal damage to the rest of the car - a trademark of the AGM-114R9X, which has reportedly been used extremely sparingly by US forces.
The strong correlations to the two strikes point to the idea the R9X was also employed on Tuesday. Pictures of the van on social media also show it was hit in a confined urban area, where a non-explosive warhead would be of preference.
Nick Waters tweeted a photo from inside the vehicle, showing a still from a video that shows six cuts through the top of the car – which is the same number of blades that the R9X has.
MQ-9 Reapers, which can carry Hellfire missiles such as the R9X and conduct targeted strikes, are also known to operate in the area of Idlib – with one spotted flying above the area of nearby Jindires as recently as November 22.
The unmanned predator drones can use sensors and radars with ground moving target indicators (GMTI) to zero in on moving targets through cellphone or satellite signals.
In the wake of al-Baghdadi’s death, the Pentagon said the operation yielded a significant amount of intelligence that that would be valuable in identifying and tracking down other major ISIS figures – which may include cellphone numbers.
‘I can't tell you anything about what we took off the site. You'll appreciate that,’ US Marine Corps General Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command said after the raid, on October 30. ‘We're going to exploit that, and we expect it to help us as we go forward.’
Despite Trump's announcement of a total withdrawal of American forces from Syria earlier this year, the apparent US strike in Atmeh would indicate that the United States is still actively pursuing ISIS and other terrorist leaders in the region.
In May, the US military leaked details of the RX9 missile to improve its image in the Muslim world in an effort to show they are trying to reduce collateral damage, it was claimed.
It was ordered by Barack Obama after he was stung by criticism civilians were being killed in drone strikes.
As well as being responsible for the death of Egyptian militant al-Masri, it is also believed in January this year it was used to kill Jamal al-Badawi.
The Yemeni was convicted in his native country of masterminding the bombing of the USS Cole, which killed 17 American sailors and injuring 39 in 2000
The 'flying Ginsu' is a modified version of a Hellfire missile, usually around five feet in length and weighing 100lb, that has been deployed by US drones and usually causes a large blast area that scorches targets and their surroundings.
Around six operations in locations such as Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and Syria are all said to have used the bladed projectile.
One of these 'inert bombs' was consider by Obama in the operation to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011, but instead a team of Navy SEALs stormed his compound in Abbottabad.
The missile's nickname comes from the Ginsu knife brand that alluded to Japanese samurai in their marketing.
Speculation about the military's use of a new weapon has been rife since 2017 when photos were released of al-Masri, who seemed to have been killed inside a car that contained a large puncture in the roof with blade marks along the impact area.
Journalists noted at the time that the vehicle was surprisingly intact.
According to the report, which is based on interviews with more than a dozen accounts from current and former government officials, the weapon was born partially of the desire by former President Obama to avoid civilian casualties caused in particular by airstrikes from the CIA's drone program.
Data from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, who has been cataloging the effects of US drone strikes abroad since 2004, in the last 15 years drone strikes have killed between 769 to 1725 civilians with 253 to 397 of them being children.
Obama announced the new strategy in a speech in May 2013 when he admitted some civilian deaths were unavoidable.
He said: 'Before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured - the highest standard we can set.
'For me and those in my chain of command, those deaths will haunt us as long as we live.'
Apart from his alleged role in the USS Cole attack, in which he was said to have supplied boats and explosives, Badawi was also charged with attempting to attack a US Navy vessel in January 2000 with co-conspirators.
The FBI had placed Badawi on its most wanted list, offering a $5million reward for information leading to his capture.
Outside of the clear human impact, the Wall Street Journal reports that the US military is also interested in the new weapon technology for more practical reasons.
Fighters have begun to adapt to drone attacks by hiding out in areas populated by children and women, putting them ostensibly out of reach from traditional airstrikes.
The Ginsu carries with it a set of more technical pros and cons, officials said.
Because it greatly minimizes the risk of civilian casualties entailed in traditional explosives, it increases the places it can be deployed, giving pilots more potential shots on a target.
However, the amount of precision and intelligence needed to accurately strike a target comes at a cost of additional resources from officers and military officials.
The report states that the missile has been deployed somewhat selectively since it started being developed in 2011, with about six uses. Among the confirmed kills, the report says, are Jamal al-Badawi who behind a bombing in 2000 that killed 17 sailors.
Under Obama's presidency, journalists like Jeremy Scahill and others detailed a massive and covert expansion of the CIA's drone program which many likened to a silent war being waged without the American public's knowledge.
Analysts at think tanks like Brookings Institution have hypothesized that the impact of civilian casualties that result from drone warfare may even worsen radicalization. Terrorists have been shown to use the carnage as a recruiting tool to help turn citizens against the US.
In March President Donald Trump rolled back an Obama-era mandate that required the government to report on the number of casualties caused by drones outside of traditional war zones.
While the US Department of Defense reports annually on civilian casualties as a result of military operations, the CIA conducts much of its work in secret and is not subject to the mandate.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.