The US military announced that it killed an al Qaeda facilitator who was “trained by the Taliban,” as well as an external operations leader in two separate airstrikes in Syria within the last week. The US has launched four strikes against al Qaeda’s network in Syria since the beginning of 2017.
Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said that Abd al-Jalil al-Muslimi, a Tunisian national who “was trained by the Taliban in the late 1990s, when he facilitated extremist travel for the terror group,” was killed in an airstrike near Saraqib, Syria on Jan. 12.
Muslimi “had extensive and long-standing ties to numerous al Qaeda external operations planners and terrorists,” according to Cook.
His death, according to Cook, “will degrade al Qaeda in Syria’s access to that cadre of veteran plotters,” and his position “will be difficult for al Qaeda to fill.”
In a separate statement, Cook said that Mohammad Habib Boussadoun al-Tunisi, who was described as an “external operations leader” for al Qaeda, was killed in a Jan. 17 airstrike near Idlib in Syria.
Boussadoun “was involved in extremist facilitation and external operations and has been connected to terrorist plots to attack Western targets,” according to Cook. Boussadoun “arrived in Syria in 2014 after spending several years in countries across Europe and the Middle East, where he maintained ties with multiple extremists.”
Muslimi and Boussadoun were among several veteran jihadist leaders and facilitators who relocated to Syria to help establish and grow al Qaeda’s network in Syria.
Previously, the US government attempted to make a distinction between seasoned al Qaeda personnel who relocated to Syria to continue to plot against the West and those who were tasked to lead Qaeda’s local operations. Except, the cadre of al Qaeda leaders labeled as the “Khorasan group,” not only plotted to attack the West from Syria, but also led Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s local branch in Syria. Al Nusrah Front has since rebranded as Jabhat Fatah al Sham.
However, with the turn of the calendar to 2017, the US military stopped drawing such false distinctions and began referring to the jihadists collectively as al Qaeda. [See FDD’s Long War Journal reports, CENTCOM draws misleading line between Al Nusrah Front and Khorasan Group and Pentagon: Airstrikes kill 20 or more al Qaeda fighters in northern Syria.]
The Pentagon has stepped up its targeting of al Qaeda and Jabhat Fatah al Sham. 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 5 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.]
Jabhat Fatah al Sham (JFS) then issued a statement on a Jan. 12 airstrike near Saraqib, which claimed that JFS leaders Abu Anas al-Masri and Abu Ikrimah al-Tunsi, were killed alongside 10 to 15 other fighters. According to JFS, that US airstrike hit three cars and two pickup trucks.
The uptick in strikes against al Qaeda’s network in Syria is evidence that the group remains a threat to the West. Cook, the Pentagon press secretary, said that the US will “continue to take action to deny these terrorists a safe haven in Syria from which to plot to attack the United States, our allies, or our interests.”