Tar­geted strikes in Syria take out al-Qaida lead­ers

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Bassem Mroue

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.

Idlib Me­dia Cen­ter via As­so­ci­ated Press

At­tacks like this one in the Syr­ian prov­ince of Idlib are among aerial strikes that have killed 50 al-Qaida lead­ers since Jan. 1.

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