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New-Old Libya R9X Strike Case Revealed As U.S. Ramps Up ‘Ninja Bomb’ Targeted Killings

My 'scoop' - First time publication of the R9X (ninja bomb) Hellfire missile use in Libya on August 28, 2018. The text also covers all other known U.S. drones R9X targeted killings until that date. It was originally published on my previous website, posted 11 August 2020.

first publication R9X missile ninja bomb Libya 2018

Original Tweet, Aug. 13, 2020

U.S. drones conduct an increasing number of targeted killings using the AGM-114 R9X Hellfire missile, also called the “Ninja bomb” and “the flying Ginsu.” The secretive weapon was rarely used until quite recently; it was reportedly used only about six times between 2011 and May 2019. Yet as of August 2020, there are six confirmed strikes between December 2019 and June 2020, while the July 2020 case remains as a suspected one.

This missile has six blades within it instead of a typical explosive-based warhead. The blades fold out moments before it tears and crushes through the top of the targeted vehicles and passengers.

The idea here is that the R9X has a relatively small kill and injury radius in comparison to other missiles, which explode and impact a larger area, and consequently cause more civilian casualties. This reflects the original point of this missile – to minimize and even potentially avoid civilian harm.

The strike of July 20, 2020 is suspected as the most recent R9X strike to date. A drone attacked and killed two or three suspected militants as they traveled that afternoon in a small white truck near the town of Ihtaimlat (Aleppo, northern Syria). The information, evidence and imagery from the site of the scene are lacking in order to prove or disprove the use of the R9X missile in this case since some indicate it was used while others do the opposite. For example, the presence of some burn signs, which are not typical, and the penetration marks on the car’s roof lack the usually visible signs of the R9X’s blades.

As for undisputed recent cases:

Saturday, June 20, 2020, a U.S. drone fired the R9X missile which targeted and struck a motorcycle and its two armed passengers as they drove near the city of al-Bab, northern Aleppo, Syria. The two motorcyclists were killed. Imagery from the scene of the strike confirmed the use of the R9X: no signs of an explosion, hardly any damage to the surroundings, and graphic images of the two men’s sliced bodies.

The two carried fake IDs. Several hours later, their identities were revealed. One of them was Fayz al-Akal, former ISIS Governor of Raqqa and the brother of former ISIS Governor of Raqqa Hadi al-Akal, who was killed in a 2013 airstrike. Fayz’s younger brother, Izzu al-Akal, was the second man killed. He too was an ISIS militant.

Just five days before, on June 14, a U.S. drone carried out a targeted killing in Idlib, Syria. The R9X hit a Hyundai traveling with three occupants. Two of them were killed. They were identified as: Khaled al-Aruri (also known as Abu Qassam al-Urduni), leader of the al-Qaeda affiliated Huras al-Din, and Bilal al-Sanaani, senior Huras al-Din militant. The third man was evacuated to the hospital. He lost his leg but kept his life.

These are not the first uses of the R9X missile in 2020: Muhibullah Sher Wali Khan, the Taliban’s Northeast Afghanistan Chief Financial Officer was killed in Imam Saheb, Kunduz, Afghanistan, on January 12, 2020, while driving a white Toyota.

During December 2019, the U.S. used the R9X three times in Syria.

The first was on December 3, when the R9X missile struck a Mitsubishi minivan traveling in Atmeh, Idlib, Syria. The two militants in the vehicle were killed. One of them was a senior commander in al-Qaeda offshoot Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, nicknamed “Abu Ahmad al-Muhajir.”

The second was on December 7, al-Basuta, Aleppo, Syria. The U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone fired the R9X missile which struck a silver Hyundai. As a result, three of the four passengers were killed, one being an al-Qaeda affiliated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham commander. The fourth passenger was mutilated and it remains unknown if he survived.

The third use of the R9X was on December 22, near Termanin, Idlib, Syria. A drone strike killed Bilal Kharissat, senior commander of the Huras al-Din, who was reportedly alone in his car.

The Wall Street Journal was able to confirm the R9X’s existence in May of 2019 because the Obama administration’s drone warfare campaign was ceaselessly criticized, particularly for killing many civilians.

The WSJ reported that the R9X was used “about half a dozen times” before May 2019 in five countries: Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. Yet the WSJ’s article specifically identified only two cases:

The February 26, 2017, drone strike in al-Mastumah, Idlib, Syria. The airstrike killed the two occupants who were in the car. Among them, Ahmad Abu al-Khair al-Masri, who was one of the most senior al-Qaeda leaders. According to the U.S. Government, he was responsible for two attacks against the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania and in Kenya in 1998, which killed over 200 people.

The January 1, 2019 drone struck a car traveling in Marib governorate, Yemen, which killed Jamal Ahmed Mohammed Ali al-Badawi, the only occupant. He was responsible for the October 12, 2000 USS Cole attack and was a prominent al-Qaeda militant.

However, while the Iraqi and Somali cases remained unknown until now, the case in Libya is identified here for the first time.

Around 13:00 local time, on August 28, 2018, an aircraft fired a missile which targeted and struck a white pickup truck that traveled about four kilometers outside of the Dahra district in Bani Walid, Libya. The U.S. AFRICOM statement later confirmed it was a U.S. aircraft.

The object of this targeted killing was identified as Walid Bu Hariba. He was alone in the car at that time, and he was killed as a result of the airstrike. No other casualties were reported. He was once the ISIS-Libya branch commander in the city of Sirte. The imagery from the scene of the strike makes it clear that the R9X missile was used. It is very similar to images from other such strikes: the caved-in roof, the spilling body parts sliced by the missile’s blades, as well as the lack of any explosive-related damage at the scene.

Some experts appear to see only the good in the R9X. Other professionals perceive its development as fundamentally positive, but also voice their concerns. For instance, Arthur Holland Michel, Co-Director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, warns that “we should take care not to be over-sold on the technology’s precision.”

Moreover, Greg Bagwell, former Air Marshal at the Royal Air Force, and others are wary it would unduly increase the number of drone strikes since politicians are short sighted. This could only exacerbate issues of tactical thinking which comes at the expensive of strategic thinking, as argued before by Audrey Kurth Cronin, Professor of International Security at the American University and Director of the Center for Security, Innovation and New Technology.

You can find my own thoughts considering the R9X missile here.

*I thank Barbara Gurgel for her helpful editorial assistance.