Last evening, the US military killed more than 100 al Qaeda fighters in an airstrike on a training camp in Syria. The US has launched five attacks against al Qaeda’s network in Syria since the beginning of 2017.
A B-52 bomber and a number of remotely piloted aircraft, more commonly known as drones, were involved in the strike, US officials told The Associated Press. It is unclear if any senior al Qaeda leaders were killed.
The Pentagon later released a statement confirming the attack, and said it targeted the “Shaykh Sulayman Training Camp”, which “was operational since at least 2013.” It is unclear why the Pentagon allowed this camp to operate for more than 3 years before targeting it.
“The removal of this training camp disrupts training operations and discourages hardline Islamist and Syrian opposition groups from joining or cooperating with al Qaeda on the battlefield,” the Pentagon said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that last evening an “unidentified drone” targeted “Regiment 111,” a base in western Aleppo near the border of Idlib province, near the town of Shaykh Sulayman. Regiment 111 is controlled by Jabhat Fatah al Sham, al Qaeda’s branch in Syria that was formally known as the Al Nusrah Front, and Nur al Din al Zanki, a group allied with JFS. The Observatory later reported that 40 JFS fighters and three Nur al Din al Zanki fighters were killed. The strike described by the military and the one by the Observatory do appear to be one and the same.
Jabhat Fatah al Sham issued a statement denouncing the strike on “one of the training camps that prepare the mujahideen and graduate them to fill the garrison points and fight the criminal regime and its allies,” according tot the SITE Intelligence Group. Al Qaeda’s branch in Syria accused the US of siding with the Syrian government against the people.
The Pentagon has stepped up its targeting of al Qaeda and Jabhat Fatah al Sham. Last evening’s strike is the fifth against al Qaeda’s network in Syria since the beginning of the month. At the beginning of January, more than 20 al Qaeda operatives were killed in a pair of airstrikes in Syria. On Jan. 1, US warplanes hit a convoy of al Qaeda operatives as they left a headquarters near Sarmada. The Pentagon estimated that five fighters were killed.
Two days later, on Jan. 3, the Pentagon estimated that it killed more than 15 al Qaeda personnel when it targeted multiple buildings and vehicles in the Sarmada headquarters. Among those reported killed were Abu Khattab al-Qahtani, another al Qaeda veteran who is said to have fought in Afghanistan and Yemen, and Abu Omar al-Turkistani, a senior member in the al Qaeda-affiliated Turkistan Islamic Party who is reported to have served as a leader in JFS. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Pentagon: Airstrikes kill 20 or more al Qaeda fighters in northern Syria.]
Yesterday, the Pentagon announced that two al Qaeda leaders were killed in bombings in Syria on Jan. 12 and Jan. 17. Among those killed were Mohammad Habib Boussadoun al-Tunisi, who was described as an external operations leader, and Abd al-Jalil al-Muslimi, an al Qaeda veteran of Afghanistan and Syria who was trained by the Taliban and supported attacks against the West. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, US kills al Qaeda facilitator and external ops planner in Syrian airstrikes.]
The US military has targeted al Qaeda’s cadre in Syria since September 2014, and has killed multiple high profile leaders over the past several years. However, the Islamic State has been the focus of the vast majority of the 6,647 Coalition airstrikes in Syria as of Jan. 19, 2017, according to Operation Inherent Resolve. With five strikes against al Qaeda in Syria already over the past 20 days, the US military may be signaling that the global jihadist group will get more attention over the coming months.