The Ninja Missile: A Breakthrough in U.S. Counter-Terrorism Weaponry?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 8


A February 2017 airstrike in Idlib, Syria targeted and killed Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, a deputy to al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al-Masri was one of the first foreign terrorists to have been killed using the U.S. military’s newest counter-terrorism weapon: the AGM-114R9X (R9X) Hellfire missile, often called the “ninja missile”  or “the flying Ginsu” (Jerusalem Post, June 15, 2020). The missile is a new variant on the Hellfire. However, instead of delivering an explosive payload, the R9X missile releases six blades shortly before impact, crushing and cutting its target.

At first glance, the R9X missile, described as “a weapon that combines medieval brutality with advanced technology,” appears to be an important breakthrough in the U.S. counter-terrorism arsenal (Wall Street Journal, May 9, 2019). Despite its Hellfire connotation, the R9X missile is more like a long-range sniper round than its explosive cousins. The payload allows a drone operator based in the United States to target terrorist leaders anywhere in the world to an accuracy of only a few feet, and potentially without any collateral damage. But there are downsides, including a failure to adequately address ethical and human rights questions and a lack of clarity about if it can be deployed effectively in future battles.

Background and Early Use of the R9X

Although the R9X missile has been employed in both Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Pentagon strikes, it has been used sparingly (Asia Times, December 9, 2019). Officials suggest there have been half-a-dozen deployments, although research by this author points to at least nine strikes. The weapon was developed under the Obama administration to reduce civilian casualties from U.S. counter-terrorism strikes abroad, and a similar missile was considered for the successful mission in 2011 that killed then al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden (Jerusalem Post, May 15, 2019). A former U.S. official expressed hopes the weapon could even solve a “right seat, left seat” problem, with the missile, in fact, being capable of discriminately targeting passengers in a moving vehicle (Asia Times, December 9, 2019).

Unsurprisingly, details surrounding specific R9X missile strikes remain murky, but journalists have uncovered a pattern of attacks conducted throughout the Trump administration.

  • The first documented use of the R9X missile targeted al-Masri in al-Mastouma, Idlib province, Syria, in a CIA strike in early 2017 (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, March 1, 2017)
  • Strikes in 2019 likely targeted leaders of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Syria, as well as Jamal Ahmed Badawi, an al-Qaeda mastermind behind the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, in Yemen (Task & Purpose, June 16, 2020; Gulf News, January 3, 2020)
  • In June 2020, two senior leaders of al-Qaeda-affiliated Hurras al-Din were killed in a ninja missile strike in northwestern Syria (Jerusalem Post, June 15, 2020)
  • The latter half of 2020 also saw the U.S. deploy the R9X missile in Idlib to kill Khaled al-Aruri, described as ‘the de facto leader of the Qaeda branch’ in Syria; Sayyaf al-Tunsi, a Tunisian involved in the group’s external operations in Syria; Safina al-Tunisi, who was a former Jabhat al-Nusra commander (killed in the same strike as Sayyaf al-Tunisi); and Abu Yahya al-Uzbeki, a Hurras al-Din trainer (com/kyleworton, June 17, 2020; Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, September 15, 2020; Twitter, September 15, 2020; Twitter, August 13, 2020).
  • An additional strike in December 2020 in Idlib was unsuccessful, although it was unclear who was targeted (Jerusalem Post, December 31, 2020).

Positives: Cutting Collateral Damage from Counter-terrorism Operations

The R9X missile is a remarkable show of military force. However, has it actually been that useful in helping win the War on Terror?

First, and critically, the R9X missile complements other Hellfire variants that are maintaining pressure on terrorist organizations abroad. Coordinating large-scale, international terrorist attacks requires months of detailed planning, organizing, and training. Drone strikes decimate such organizational capacity, and the drone’s constant presence over some of the most rugged and inaccessible terrain on the planet has thus made the coordination of spectacular terrorist attacks, such as 9/11, much more difficult. Drone strikes are, in fact, directly linked to diminishing the rate and lethality of terrorist attacks orchestrated by targeted groups (International Studies Quarterly, June 2016).

Despite criticisms, drone strikes have also actually proven effective at limiting civilian casualties (New America, 2018). In contrast, during President Trump’s first month in office, a failed ground mission in Yemen killed up to 25 civilians, as well as Navy SEAL William Owens, while failing to locate the intended target, AQAP leader Qasim al-Raymi (Bureau of Investigative Journalism, February 9, 2017). Al-Raymi would be killed three years later—in a drone strike (Al Thawra, February 26, 2020). Without drone technology, the United States would still pursue targeted killing as part of its counter-terrorism campaigns, but it would be far more dangerous to American servicemen and civilians on the ground. A more precise missile serves to lower civilian casualties.

Nevertheless, one cannot question the negative “hearts and minds” impact wrought by U.S. drones, which have damaged the country’s reputation in targeted regions. Over the course of the War on Terror, however, the United States has learned from mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the war against Islamic State (IS), for instance, the U.S. limited its footprint, taking a “train, advise, assist, and equip” approach, and attempted to allow great power rivals—notably Russia—to gather poor press (Department of Defense, September 13, 2018). Obama’s 2011 directive to develop a missile that could more precisely target militant leaders—in Idlib, for example—with little-to-no collateral damage was intended to stand in stark contrast to instances like Russia’s bombing of Syria’s hospitals (New York Times, October 13, 2019). Accordingly, precise drone strikes may strengthen the U.S. hand in the growing reorientation toward great power competition.

Finally, terrorists adapt, and as with any counter-terrorism measure, they have learned to avoid drone strikes, largely by hiding among women and children. With improved precision, the R9X missile may challenge the “human shield” approach used by militants. That would break down one of the only defenses terrorist leaders had against U.S. airstrikes (Wall Street Journal, May 9, 2019).

Negatives: Still No Long-Term Strategy?

The downsides that the R9X missile presents deal less with any unique consequences it triggers, and more with issues it fails to solve. Most notably, the development of the R9X missile will likely coincide with the U.S. military and government’s struggles to implement a broader and bolder strategy to defeat jihadism through the dismantling of its ideological allure. As almost twenty years of the War on Terror have demonstrated, playing whack-a-mole is only effective in managing the threat posed by international terrorist groups—not defeating them (CTC Sentinel, January 14). Until the U.S. undertakes a longer-term effort, in collaboration with reliable local partners, to challenge the ideological attractions provided by Salafist-jihadism, the War on Terror will be indefinite—and the R9X missile will just be the latest bullet in America’s chamber.

The fact that drone strikes have led to new recruitment for terrorist groups is also clear (International Affairs, January 2013). The issue has been compounded by al-Qaeda’s adoption of its own “hearts and minds” approach to insurgency, with the group having successfully “ingrained itself in local communities and conflicts,” according to the United Nations (United Nations, July 23, 2020). Accordingly, the R9X missile may still not solve the “accidental guerrilla” dilemma: the U.S. ends up in wars against “the local fighter […] fighting us because we are in his space, not because he wishes to invade ours.” [1]

It is also unclear whether the R9X missile will alleviate the ethical and human rights concerns that have plagued the use of the drones since its inception. A lengthy Amnesty International report argued, for instance, the “ultimate tragedy” of the U.S. drone policy was that drone strikes “now instill the same kind of fear […] that was once associated only with al Qai’da and the Taliban” (Amnesty International, October 21, 2013). Importantly, distrust of the United States and its military operations does not necessarily come from its missiles, but from the drones themselves. Some residents of Pakistan’s border region, for example, have admitted to seeing drones as “a constant, enduring reminder that they are being watched, and may be killed, by a foreign government” (The International Journal of Human Rights, 2015). Such concerns are not eased by the R9X missile, at least in the short term.

A “safer” missile like R9X also risks encouraging the United States to continue to expand its drone war outside current areas of engagement. To date, drone strikes have typically been avoided in more crowded locations, such as city squares, transport terminals, and places of worship. Accordingly, it has been used in more rural landscapes—Pakistan’s Waziristan, for instance, or the hinterlands of Somalia and Yemen. With a more precise missile, that might change (Defense One, May 10, 2019).

Finally, the R9X missile does not relieve the need for flawless intelligence—if anything, it actually increases the need for good intelligence, ideally provided in real time by human sources on the ground (Wall Street Journal, May 9, 2019). This may prove increasingly true if the U.S. does hope to pursue discriminate targeting in close quarters—a moving car, for instance. And this may become even more difficult as the U.S. increasingly pulls out of the Middle East and South Asia to refocus on great power competition.


It is unlikely, for now, that the R9X missile will be used outside current theaters, but if counter-terrorism concerns continue to grow in the Sahel and Mozambique, this precise missile will offer an attractive alternative to a more visible footprint. The Somalia model—surgical strikes that are targeted narrowly at high-value targets posing an international threat—will be more attractive than the boots-on-ground Afghanistan and Iraq models. The broader question of whether to intensify counter-terrorism operations beyond current areas of engagement is ultimately a political question and will be a question for the Biden administration to answer. For now, the Biden administration’s review of existing policies seems to indicate that drone warfare will not be unnecessarily expanded (New York Times, March 3). But, whether the government’s latest weapon, the R9X missile, eventually encourages wider engagement remains to be seen.

In 2013, scholars Daniel Byman and Audrey Kurth Cronin debated the effectiveness of drone strikes in counter-terrorism operations in Foreign Affairs. “The United States simply cannot tolerate terrorist safe havens in remote parts of Pakistan and elsewhere, and drones offer a comparatively low-risk way of targeting these areas while minimizing collateral damage,” Byman argued (Foreign Affairs, July/August 2013). Cronin countered that the “drone program has taken on a life of its own, to the point where tactics are driving strategy rather than the other way around” (Foreign Affairs, July/August 2013).

Both, to an extent, are right. Drone strikes have been tremendously effective at limiting international terrorism, and in fact, forced an operational rethink for jihadist organizations, away from sending operatives overseas to commit attacks, and towards inspiring “homegrown” extremists within the target country itself. And yet, the war goes on. The R9X missile appears poised to gradually degrade international terrorist organizations, while limiting both civilian and military casualties, but without adequately addressing the concern that Washington lacks “a long-term political strategy that undermines the enemies of the United States” (Foreign Affairs, July/August 2013). As former Marine Corps General James Cartwright declared, “If you’re trying to kill your way to a solution, no matter how precise you are, you’re going to upset people even if they’re not targeted” (New York Times, March 21, 2013).

At the height of the war in Afghanistan, retired General Stanley McChrystal said, “Air power contains the seeds of our own destruction if we do not use it responsibly. We can lose this fight” (Hindustan Times, June 22, 2009). The AGM-114R9X Hellfire missile marks a powerful step forward for the U.S. counter-terrorism arsenal, breaching a new frontier in targeting and precision. But until a bolder, braver, more transformative strategic shift is pursued, victory in the so-called War on Terror will remain elusive.


[1] Kilcullen, D. (2009). The accidental guerrilla: Fighting small wars in the midst of a big one. Oxford: Oxford University Press.