Pentagon: Airstrikes kill 20 or more al Qaeda fighters in northern Syria

The Department of Defense announced today that multiple airstrikes killed an estimated 20 or more al Qaeda “militants” in northern Syria at the beginning of the month.

The results of the bombings are still being “assessed,” according to a statement by Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook. But US forces “struck two al Qaeda vehicles that had departed a large al Qaeda headquarters near Sarmada,” which is in the northern Idlib province, on Jan. 1. The Pentagon thinks that “five al Qaeda militants” were killed and two vehicles were destroyed during this strike.

Then, on Jan. 3, US forces “struck the headquarters compound itself, including multiple vehicles and structures.” These bombings “killed more than 15 al Qaeda militants,” while also destroying “six vehicles” and “nine structures.”

Al Qaeda’s “foreign terrorist fighter network used this headquarters as a gathering place, and their leaders directed terrorist operations out of this location,” according to Cook’s statement. “We are confident these strikes will degrade al Qaeda’s ability to direct operations in Syria.”

Although the Defense Department doesn’t say it, the airstrikes were likely among the most significant carried out against al Qaeda facilities in Syria to date.

Since Sept. 2014, the US has targeted al Qaeda veterans in Syria on multiple occasions. More often than not, however, these airstrikes have targeted individual jihadi leaders or small groups of jihadis. There have been exceptions. In Nov. 2014, for instance, the US bombed five targets associated with al Qaeda’s so-called Khorasan Group near Sarmada. The strikes relied on US “bomber, fighter and remotely piloted aircraft” and likely damaged or destroyed “several vehicles, as well as buildings assessed to be meeting and staging areas or bomb-making and training facilities.” US officials stressed at the time that the airstrikes were intended to hit specific cadres of al Qaeda members, and not Al Nusrah Front (as al Qaeda’s branch in Syria was known at the time) as a whole. The US also stated that the bombings were not intended to defend Syrian rebel groups that were clashing with Al Nusrah.

But as FDD’s Long War Journal assessed at the time, the US government was drawing a false distinction between the “Khorasan Group,” which was made up of al Qaeda veterans who also served in Al Nusrah, and the rest of al Qaeda’s paramilitary forces in Syria. In reality, they were all part of al Qaeda’s international organization. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Analysis: CENTCOM draws misleading line between Al Nusrah Front and Khorasan Group.]

Today’s statement from the Pentagon does not seek to draw any similarly misleading lines. The targets are referred to as simply al Qaeda.

In December, the Obama administration released a memo outlining the legal underpinnings for its counterterrorism operations around the globe. Tellingly, the definition of al Qaeda in Syria was written to “encompass references to the Nusrah Front, which is al Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria and which changed its name to Fatah al-Sham Front in July 2016.” In addition, the memo’s authors noted, “there are some members of al Qaeda who have relocated to Syria from other conflict zones who are not members of the Nusrah Front.”

In other words, as the Obama administration leaves office, al Qaeda in Syria is being defined more broadly — and accurately — than at the outset of the current air campaign. The language was markedly different from that employed in late 2014. This is consistent with President Obama’s order to the Pentagon to launch airstrikes against leaders and other figures in JFS more broadly, instead of just select al Qaeda veterans in Syria, as was the practice in the past.

In November, the Washington Post reported that Obama had ordered the Defense Department “to find and kill the leaders of” JFS, after years of the administration “largely” ignoring the group.

Some of the jihadis killed in the airstrikes on Jan. 1 have been identified by their fellow ideologues on social media. These identifications were also reported by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).

Three of the men killed are said to be: a Syrian known as Abu Mu’tasim al-Dairi, an al Qaeda veteran known as Abu Khattab al-Qahtani, and a Uighur jihadist known as Abu Omar al-Turkistani. According to SOHR (and corroborated by jihadis who reported the deaths online), Qahtani had “previously fought in Afghanistan” and Yemen before moving to Syria. Turkistani was “one of the four most prominent leaders of the” Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), which is affiliated with al Qaeda.

According to some online jihadi sources, Turkistani was also a senior figure in Jabhat Fath al Sham (JFS), which was formerly known as Al Nusrah Front. He was reportedly playing a leading role in the merger talks taking place between JFS and other groups, and may have been in line to assume a leadership position in a newly-formed entity.

If this assessment is true, then Turkistani played a role similar to Abu Omar Saraqib at the time of his death last year. Saraqib was the “general commander” of Jaysh al Fath (“Army of Conquest”), an alliance led by al Qaeda and its closest allies in Syria, when a bomb killed him in September. The jihadis blamed Saraqib’s death on the US-led coalition, claiming that warplanes had targeted the operations room responsible for breaking the siege of Aleppo. Jaysh al Fath subsequently launched an offensive in his honor, dubbed “The Battle of the Hero Martyr Abu Omar Saraqib.” The offensive in Aleppo ultimately failed.

But the death of Saraqib highlighted a recurring problem in Syria: Al Qaeda and its extremist partners have been pooling the resources of various organizations under the banner of Jaysh al Fath. Turkistani may have been involved in a new, but similar effort at the time of his demise.

As the airstrikes on Jan. 1 and Jan. 3 demonstrate, al Qaeda has developed a major paramilitary force in Syria. According to US officials contacted by FDD’s Long War Journal last year, the group could have as many as 10,000 fighters, if not more, in Syria today. And al Qaeda’s operations include groups that are not technically part of Jabhat Fath al Sham (JFS), such as the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP). Indeed, Abu Omar al Turkistani was reportedly a member of the TIP and also possibly JFS. The TIP is al Qaeda’s ethnic Uighur group, and also draws in other nationalities from Central Asia and elsewhere. The TIP operates in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and other countries.

Al Qaeda “remains committed to carrying out terrorist attacks against the United States and the West,” Pentagon Pentagon Press Secretary Cook said in his statement today. “We will continue to take action to deny any terrorist safe haven in Syria” and “not allow al Qaeda to grow its capacity to attack the United States or our allies and friends around the world,” he added.

Note: The spelling of al Qaeda was changed to make it consistent throughout this article, including in quotes where it was originally spelled differently.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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