Maj. Beth Riordan, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon’s Central Command, said seven senior Qaeda leaders were killed while holding a meeting on Thursday near Idlib.
“AQ-S takes advantage of the instability in northwest Syria to establish and maintain safe havens to coordinate terrorist activities,” Major Riordan said in an email after the strike, using a military abbreviation for Hurras al-Din. “The removal of these AQ-S leaders will disrupt the terrorist organization’s ability to further plot and carry out global attacks threatening U.S. citizens, our partners and innocent civilians.”
Just a week earlier, on Oct. 15, several Qaeda operatives were killed in a similar Hellfire missile drone strike, also near Idlib, Major Riordan said without revealing more details.
Charles Lister, the director of the Middle East Institute’s Syria and Countering Terrorism and Extremism Programs, said one of those killed in the Oct. 15 strike was Abu Mohammed al-Sudani, a Qaeda veteran who had worked with and was close to both Osama bin Laden and Mr. al-Zawahri.
The United States has no troops on the ground in northwest Syria, but the military’s secretive Joint Special Operations Command, with help from the C.I.A., is carrying out a shadow war against Hurras al-Din, a small but virulent Al Qaeda affiliate that American officials say is plotting attacks against the West.
The two most recent strikes were carried with conventional Hellfire missiles equipped with an explosive warhead of about 20 pounds, military officials said. Special Operations forces are also using a new Hellfire variant, called the R9X or the Ninja, to hunt individual Qaeda leaders in places where the military is trying to avoid civilian casualties.
Instead of exploding, the modified Hellfire hurls about 100 pounds of metal through the top of a target’s vehicle. If the high-velocity projectile does not kill the target, the missile’s other feature almost certainly does: six long blades tucked inside, which deploy seconds before impact to slice up anything in its path.