Another Syrian Terrorist Seemingly Killed By Hellfire Missile With Pop-Out Sword Blades (Updated)

There reports of an unusual U.S. airstrike on a minivan in a city in northwestern Syria less than 10 miles from where American special operators conducted a raid just over a month ago that led to the death of brutal ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It appears that this targeted strike also involved the use of an extremely specialized variant of the Hellfire missile, known as the AGM-114R9X, which substitutes the warhead found on standard models for a set of folding sword-like blades for minimum collateral damage.

The strike reportedly occurred in Atmeh, which is situated in Syria’s Idlib province. The city is less than five miles from the Turkish border and lies fewer than 10 miles northwest of Barisha, where Al Baghdadi’s compound was located. There are reports that two individuals in the van died, but their identities and if they are affiliated with any known terrorist groups are unclear at the time of writing. There is one report that at least one person who was killed belonged to Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, or HTS, a group that splintered from Al Qaeda’s franchise in Syria in 2017.

A map showing the general location of Atmeh and Barisha, to the south, within Syria., Google Maps
A closer view showing the relative proximity of Atmeh and Barisha, to its south., Google Maps

Pictures that have emerged of the van so far offer limited views of the damage, but it is clear that the weapon involved did not have a traditional warhead. The van in Atmeh shows extensive damage toward the front passenger side, but limited damage otherwise the rest of the vehicle. There are reports that the men inside the vehicle were “mashed” inside by the impact.

There are clear similarities here to a strike that killed Abu Khayr Al Masri, then Al Qaeda’s number two leader, as he drove in his car in Al Mastouma, Syria, in 2017. This city is also in Idlib and is some 30 miles south of Atmeh. Al Masri’s car also suffered the most damage toward the front passenger side and is known to have been the work of an AGM-114R9X, which has reportedly been used extremely sparingly. The War Zone was the first to call attention to the likelihood that a previously unknown munition was used in that strike, which turned out to be the case.

Without seeing the top of the van in Atmeh, which could show telltale signs of the AGM-114R9X’s blades striking the vehicle, and with such little additional information about the individuals who died in the strike, it is impossible to say for certain who may have been responsible and exactly weapons they may have been employed.

However, the similarities between the two strikes strongly point to the AGM-114R9X being employed. The pictures of the van do show it in a relatively confined urban area, where a weapon capable of causing extremely minimal collateral damage would be ideal, as well.

We also know that U.S. unmanned aircraft, such as MQ-9 Reapers, which can carry Hellfire missiles and are known to carry out targeted strikes, operate in this region of Syria. On Nov. 22, 2019, photojournalist Rami Al Sayed caught a glimpse of a Reaper flying in the area of Jindires in Syria, a town in Aleppo province that is located around six miles north of Atmeh. 

The particular aircraft was carrying four Hellfire missiles, a range-extending drop tank, and two other unknown pods. It is very likely that this latter pair of stores contained a mixture of sensors, such as radars with ground moving target indicator (GMTI) and synthetic aperture functionality and geo-location systems to zero in on targeted cellular or satellite telephone signals, as well as advanced data links.

An MQ-9 Reaper seen flying near Jindires on Nov. 22, 2019., Rami Al Sayed/AFP via Getty Images

Tracking and targeting terrorists based on the location of their phones is a known U.S. tactic and it would not be surprising that American unmanned aircraft, as well as manned platforms and assets on the ground, have been combing the area for those signals in the aftermath of the raid on Baghdadi’s compound. The Pentagon said that operation resulted in the seizure of a significant amount of intelligence that would be valuable in identifying and tracking down other major ISIS figures.

On Dec. 3, 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump said that the raid had produced “good information,” including lists of ISIS financiers. Trump was speaking to reporters during a press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron in London on the sidelines of the annual NATO summit, which began that day.

“I can’t tell you anything about what we took off the site. You’ll appreciate that,” U.S. Marine Corps General Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, told had also reporters during a briefing about the raid on Oct. 30, 2019. “We’re going to exploit that, and we expect it to help us as we go forward.”

In the immediate aftermath of Baghdadi’s death, the United States also killed ISIS’ then-number two leader, Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir, in another airstrike. The terrorist group subsequently named Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Quraishi as its new leader. In Tweet on Nov. 1, 2019, Trump indicated that he was also known to U.S. intelligence agencies, saying “ISIS has a new leader. We know exactly who he is!”

Given reports that a member of Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS) died in the van, it is also possible that, if the United States did indeed carry out the strike in Atmeh, that it was targeting members of another group. If that’s the case, this would be the first reported U.S. strike aimed specifically at HTS since 2017.

The U.S. military also acknowledged a strike on leaders of Al Qaeda’s present Syrian franchise, known as AQ-S, in Aleppo province on June 30, 2019. This is to say nothing of the strike on Al Masri back in 2017.

The future of U.S.-led operations in Syria, in general, had been unclear following Turkey launching an intervention into areas along its shared border with the country in October 2019. This operation targeted the American-supported and predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and prompted U.S. personnel to hastily withdraw from many forward operating locations

Despite Trump’s announcement of a total withdrawal of American forces from the country, the United States has since bolstered certain positions, in eastern Syria, notably in and around numerous oil-producing areas. This has included the deployment of mechanized infantry from the Army National Guard with Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles into Dier Ez Zor province. The U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS in both Syria and Iraq said in November that it had resumed operations against that terrorist group in that region. 

Elements of the 30th Armored Brigade Combat Team, a unit of the US Army National Guard, including M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles, on patrol in Syria., US Army

The Syrian conflict otherwise remains very fluid, especially with the new complexities that the Turkish intervention has brought, including a deal with Russia to secure a buffer zone along Syria’s northern border. How all of this has impacted activities targeting the terrorist group’s leader further West is unclear.

The apparent U.S. targeted strike in Atmeh would indicate that the United States continues to actively pursue ISIS and other terrorist leaders in western Syria despite the shifting battle lines in the country and uncertainties in over-arching U.S. policy toward the conflict.

UPDATE: 4:55pm EST—

Nick Waters, a senior investigator at Bellingcat, who was first to notice the blade strikes from the AGM-114R9X on Abu Khayr Al Masri’s car after the strike in 2017, has found evidence of similar damage in the strike in Atmeh. This provides even more evidence that this was the missile employed in this strike.

UPDATE: 7:40pm EST—

An image has emerged of what may be a portion of the AGM-114R9X used in the Atmeh strike. 

UPDATE: 8:25pm EST—

A reader has informed us that the minivan in question is a Mitsubishi Delica L400, which is available as a right-hand drive vehicle and that this particular example appears to be in that configuration. This means that the missile impacted the front driver side, not the passenger side.

UPDATE: 10:10pm EST—

The War Zone has given the wreckage of the AGM-114R9X missile from the Atmeh attack a closer look, which you can find here.

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