Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS), a group formed by al Qaeda’s branch in Syria and several other organizations, has claimed responsibility for two suicide bombings in Damascus yesterday. Dozens were killed and many more wounded when the bombers struck Shiite pilgrims visiting holy sites in the Syrian capital. Many of the victims were from neighboring Iraq.
HTS portrays the attacks as a retaliatory strike against Iranian-backed Shiite militias, which fight Sunnis in both Iraq and Syria. In its statement, HTS claims that one of the bombers struck “Iranian militias” and the second hit Assad’s forces. The statement could be read as an attempt to draw a distinction between civilians and supposedly legitimate military targets.
But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reports that approximately “8 children under the age of eighteen and 11” women or girls were killed. Twenty (20) “members of the [Assad] regime forces and the militiamen loyal to them,” “including 16 members of [the] regime’s police and gunmen loyal to them,” are also among the dead. The death toll has steadily risen since the initial casualty reports. SOHR estimates 74 people perished.
SOHR’s sources indicated that “the blasts took place sequentially.” One “explosive device” was detonated near a cemetery and then a second jihadist blew himself up as “the visitors from 9 buses gathered” afterward.
Al Qaeda generally avoids attacks on Shiite religious and civilian locations. Ayman al Zawahiri criticized such operations in a 2005 letter to Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the head of al Qaeda in Iraq. Zawahiri advised that the “majority of Muslims don’t comprehend” the Sunni-Shiite conflict “and possibly could not even imagine it.” Therefore, many of Zarqawi’s “Muslim admirers amongst the common folk are wondering about your attacks on the Shiites.”
“My opinion is that this matter won’t be acceptable to the Muslim populace however much you have tried to explain it, and aversion to this will continue,” Zawahiri wrote.
In his subsequent general guidelines for waging jihad, Zawahiri reiterated that the Sunni jihadists should only fight Shiites and other supposedly “deviant sects” of Muslims under certain circumstances. “If they fight” Sunnis, Zawahiri wrote, “even then the response must be restricted to those parties amongst them who are directly engaged in the fight.” The Sunni jihadists should “make it clear that we are only defending ourselves.” Moreover, Zawahiri continued, “[t]hose from amongst them who do not participate in the fight against us and their families, should not be targeted in their homes, places of worship, their religious festivals and religious gatherings.”
However, yesterday’s bombings in Damascus deliberately targeted “religious gatherings.”
Al Qaeda’s rivals in the Islamic State have rejected Zawahiri’s approach to waging jihad. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s men frequently target Shiite civilians in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.
Al Qaeda’s arm in Syria was originally known as Al Nusrah Front. The organization claimed credit for a series of suicide bombings, including in Damascus, during the early years of the Syrian war. [See, for example, FDD’s Long War Journal reports: Suicide bombings become commonplace in Syria and Al Nusrah Front claims yet another suicide attack in Syria.]
In Oct. 2015, Al Nusrah, Ahrar al Sham and a third group, Ajnad al Sham, created a joint operations room named Jund al Malahim (“Soldiers of the Epics”) to combine their military efforts in the countryside of Damascus.
In Feb. 2016, two small jihadist groups (Ansar al Sharia and Al Muntasir Billah) swore allegiance to Al Nusrah Front’s emir, Abu Muhammad al Julani. The jihadists pledged to fight the Russians, Shiites and Assad regime loyalists in and around Damascus.
In July 2016, Al Nusrah Front was relaunched as Jabhat Fath al Sham (JFS). Then, in January, JFS claimed responsibility for two suicide bombings in the Kafr Sousa neighborhood of Damascus. According to SOHR, at least 10 “members and officers of the regime forces and militiamen loyal to them” died in the blasts.
JFS and four other organizations merged to form Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (“Assembly for the Liberation of Syria”) in January. And it was in HTS’ name that the bombings in Damascus on Mar. 11 were carried out.
The Islamic State has launched suicide operations in Damascus as well. The so-called caliphate bombed a Shiite shrine in a suburb of Damascus last June. And in September, an Islamic State suicide bomber drove a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) into a Syrian army checkpoint west of Damascus.