U.S.-led strikes killing al Qaeda se­nior of­fi­cials

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - WORLD - By Bassem Mroue Bassem Mroue is an As­so­ci­ated Press writer.

BEIRUT — The con­voy of ve­hi­cles 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 un­rec­og­niz­able charred corpses.

Among the eight dead was Khat­tab al-Qah­tani, a se­nior al Qaeda of­fi­cial from the Per­sian Gulf re­gion with re­ported ties to Osama bin Laden, as well as a Syr­ian al Qaeda com­man­der from the coun­try’s east and a mil­i­tant be­long­ing to the Turk­istan Is­lamic Party, a fac­tion of Chi­nese ji­hadists fight­ing in Syria.

The New Year’s Day at­tack was the first in a wave of air strikes that has tar­geted al Qaeda’s af­fil­i­ate in Syria at an un­prece­dented rate, killing more than 50 mil­i­tants al­lied with the in­ter­na­tional 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 Qaeda 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 Qaeda that plans at­tacks against West­ern in­ter­ests.

An­a­lysts say that since al Qaeda 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.

“Had it not been for their agents they wouldn’t have been able to do any­thing,” a lo­cal al Qaeda com­man­der said via text mes­sage from north­ern Syria.

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 and Syria’s al Qaeda af­fil­i­ate, known as the Fatah al-Sham Front.

The in­ten­si­fied at­tacks also come at a time when the Is­lamic State 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 Is­lamic State strong­hold in Iraq, while U.S.-backed Kur­dish-led fight­ers are march­ing to­ward the Syr­ian city of Raqqa, Is­lamic State’s de facto cap­i­tal.

“Daesh is on the verge of col­lapse and this is di­vert­ing the at­ten­tion to­ward al Qaeda,” said Dana Jalal, a Swe­den­based ex­pert on ji­hadist groups, re­fer­ring to Is­lamic State by its Ara­bic acro­nym.

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