Targeted strikes in Syria take out al-Qaida leaders
Airstrikes by U.S.-led coaltion forces in Syria killed dozens of al-Qaida operatives since the New Year began, including eight in a single convoy.
BEIRUT — The convoy was driving on a dirt road in northwestern Syria when the aerial attack by the U.S.-led coalition struck, turning the vehicles into balls of fire and the people inside into charred corpses.
Among the eight dead was Khattab al-Qahtani, a senior alQaida official from the Persian Gulf region with reported ties to Osama bin Laden, as well as a Syrian al-Qaida commander from the country’s east and a militant belonging to the Turkistan Islamic Party, a faction of Chinese jihadis fighting in Syria.
The New Year’s Day attack was the first in a wave of airstrikes that has targeted al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria at an unprecedented rate, killing more than 50 militants allied with the terror group since the beginning of the year.
In the throes of a brutal civil war now in its sixth year, Syria has one of the largest and most active concentrations of al-Qaida fighters in the world. The U.S.-led coalition has been targeting the extremist group for years, hunting some of its most senior officials, including members of the so-called Khorasan group, which Washington describes as an internal branch of al-Qaida.
It’s not clear what is behind the recent surge in targeted killings.
Analysts say that since al-Qaida began recruiting hundreds of fighters in Syria to expand its role in the country’s civil war against President Bashar Assad’s forces, informers might have infiltrated the group, which has also become more visible, setting up command centers and outposts in northern Syria, making it easier to target.
“Had it not been for their agents they wouldn’t have been able to do anything,” a local al-Qaida commander said via text message from northern Syria. “They spray a product on top of the vehicle that cannot be seen with the naked eye but can be detected by the drone,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The stepped-up attacks could also be linked to a cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey that went into effect on Dec. 30, and excludes the Islamic State group and Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate, known as the Fatah al-Sham Front. Turkey and Russia back rival sides in the Syrian conflict and their new push to try to end the war includes talks between the Syrian government and the opposition to be held later this month in Kazakhstan.
The intensified attacks also come at a time when ISIS, an al-Qaida rival, is under intense pressure and losing territory in Iraq and Syria. Iraqi forces are on the offensive in the northern city of Mosul, the main ISIS stronghold in Iraq, while U.S.-backed Kurdish-led fighters are marching toward the Syrian city of Raqqa, ISIS’s de facto capital.
“Daesh is on the verge of collapse and this is diverting the attention toward al-Qaida,” said Dana Jalal, a Sweden-based expert on jihadi groups, referring to ISIS by its Arabic acronym. “The new Russian-Turkish alliance is also leading to fresh intelligence information.”
The rise in attacks on al-Qaida fits in with the U.S. government’s contention that it is gaining traction against a range of militant groups, including Fatah al-Sham and ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The U.S. has also stepped up attacks against ISIS militants in both countries, including a high-profile operation Sunday that targeted an ISIS force in the eastern Syrian province of Deir el-Zour.
Attacks like this one in the Syrian province of Idlib are among aerial strikes that have killed 50 al-Qaida leaders since Jan. 1.