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