US used missile with long blades to kill Al-Qaeda leader in Syria

A US military convoy makes a stop in the north-eastern Syrian town of al-Malikiyah on June 7, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - American Special Operations forces used a specially designed secret missile to kill the head of an Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria this month, dealing the terrorist group a serious blow with a weapon that combines medieval brutality with cutting-edge technology.

American and al-Qaeda officials said on Wednesday (June 24) that Khaled al-Aruri, the de facto leader of the Al-Qaeda branch, called Hurras al-Din, perished in a drone strike in Idlib in north-west Syria on June 14. He was an Al-Qaeda veteran whose militant career dates to the 1990s.

How he died was even more striking.

The modified Hellfire missile carried an inert warhead. Instead of exploding, it hurled about 45kg of metal through the top of al-Aruri's car. If the high-velocity projectile did not kill him, the missile's other feature almost certainly did: six long blades tucked inside, which deployed seconds before impact to slice up anything in its path.

The Hellfire variant, known as the R9X, was initially developed nearly a decade ago under pressure from then President Barack Obama to reduce civilian casualties and property damage in America's long-running wars on terrorism in far-flung hot spots such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia and Yemen.

The weapon, first described in detail last year by The Wall Street Journal, has been used perhaps a half-dozen times in recent years, American officials said, typically when a senior terrorist leader has been located but other weapons would risk killing nearby civilians.

Conventional Hellfire missiles, with an explosive warhead of about 9kg, are often used against groups of individuals or a so-called high-value target who is meeting other militants. But when Special Operations forces are hunting a lone leader, the R9X now is often the weapon of choice.

American officials confirmed the use of the unusual missile in two specific instances, one by the Central Intelligence Agency and one by the military's secretive Joint Special Operations Command.

Photographs of the vehicle al-Masri was said to have been travelling in revealed unusual details for such a strike: The vehicle sustained no major explosive damage, but a projectile clearly struck it directly through its roof. This suggested that the military deliberately used an inert warhead to kill its target by high-velocity impact.

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