US military targets al Qaeda operatives in Syria

Supporters of the group Hurras al-Din posted this photo allegedly showing the aftermath of a U.S. airstrike in Syria.

American forces struck al Qaeda “leadership at a training facility near Aleppo Province, Syria” yesterday, according to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). The missile strike targeted al Qaeda “operatives responsible for plotting external attacks threatening U.S. citizens, our partners, and innocent civilians.” The U.S. military did not provide any specific details about the jihadists’ external attack planning.

“Northwest Syria remains a safe haven where [Al Qaeda in Syria] leaders actively coordinate terrorist activities, to include planning attacks throughout the region and in the West,” CENTCOM’s statement continued. “With our allies and partners, we will continue to target Daesh [the Islamic State] and al Qaeda to prevent both groups from using Syria as a safe haven.”

Jihadists on social media reported on the bombing shortly after it occurred yesterday, identifying those in the crosshairs as members of Hurras al-Din (HAD, or the “Guardians of Religion” organization). And HAD has released a one-page statement saying that an unidentified group of brothers had been “martyred” at a sharia institute that was bombed. The group’s supporters had already claimed on Telegram that a sharia headquarters was struck in the airstrike.

HAD’s leadership has been at the center of some of the jihadists’ most cantankerous disputes since the rise of the Islamic State. Indeed, two of its most senior leaders, Abu Hammam al-Shami and Dr. Sami al-Uraydi, formed the group as a result of disagreements with their comrades in Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and its predecessor. A senior al Qaeda operative known as Abu ‘Abd al-Karim al-Masri (“Karim”) has mediated between the two sides in the past. After yet another round of problems earlier this year, HTS and HAD entered into a new accord. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Analysis: Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Hurras al-Din reach a new accord.]

HAD supporters also posted this purported photo of the bombing.

In recent days, HAD underwent an internal dispute of its own.

One of its top sharia officials, a Tunisian known as Abu Amr al-Tunisi, accused of al-Shami and al-Uraydi of refusing to attend a judicial proceeding. Al-Tunisi even recorded a 5-plus minute diatribe against al-Shami, accusing him of abusing his leadership position. Al-Tunisi’s accusatory speech was released by the Bayan Foundation for Media Production, which regularly disseminates or produces statements from HAD and other al Qaeda groups.

The discord between al-Tunisi and HAD’s overall leader began after two other figures, Abu Dhar al-Masri and Abu Yahya al-Jaza’iri, were suspended from the group. The issue apparently lingered for some time.

A group of approximately 200 HAD members then signed a letter urging a speedy resolution to the dispute. (The letter is reproduced here: Page 1, Page 2, Page 3, Page 4, Page 5.) The signatures reveal that dozens of foreign fighters are among HAD’s ranks. The first page of the letter includes one dozen signatures by jihadists with “al-Turki” in their aliases, an indication that they are either of Uighur or similar origin.

Abu Dhar al-Masri agreed to abide by the court proceedings, as did Abu Yahya al-Jaza’iri. But Abu Hammam al-Shami was unmoved. This led to Abu Amr al-Tunisi’s summons for al-Shami and al-Uraydi and, after their refusal to attend the proceedings, al-Tunisi’s harangue via Bayan.

The internal power struggle between a HAD judiciary official and two of its most well-known leaders may seem like a side note. But it might have actually played a role in the American airstrike. A HAD-affiliated Telegram channel reported that Abu Dhar al-Masri, Abu Yahya al-Jaza’iri, and Abu Amr al-Tunisi were among those killed. This suggests that the internal squabbling could have contributed to the actionable intelligence used for the targeted killing.

On the Ground News (OGN), a pro-jihadi “news” source, reported on the June 30 airstrike. OGN posted the photos below, allegedly showing parts of the missile(s) fired at a Hurras al-Din headquarters in the western countryside of Aleppo. The site claims the parts are believed to come from a cruise missile. FDD’s Long War Journal cannot confirm the authenticity of the photos:

Photos allegedly showing parts of a cruise missile used in the airstrike.

The U.S. has waged a prolific bombing campaign against the Islamic State in Syria, but has targeted al Qaeda’s presence far less frequently. The last major airstrike purportedly aimed at al Qaeda in Syria came in Mar. 2017. That bombing was controversial, as some quickly claimed that a civilian mosque had been hit.

In Feb. 2017, the U.S. killed one of al Qaeda’s top deputies, Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, with a specially modified missile that killed him in the passenger seat of a car. Al-Masri had previously endorsed the rebranding of Al Nusrah Front, which led to the controversial formation of HTS.

The U.S. conducted other airstrikes prior to that time, specifically aiming at a select cadre of al Qaeda operatives known as the “Khorasan Group” and others. Intelligence officials warned that members of the Khorasan crew were plotting attacks in the West, even if they hadn’t been given the green light to launch them by al Qaeda’s senior leadership. The Pentagon has also pointed to the role of al Qaeda veterans planning terrorism operations against the West from inside Syria.

Although CENTCOM did not provide any details regarding the activities of the al Qaeda operatives who were targeted yesterday, EUROPOL recently warned that the organization’s tentacles still stretched from northern Syria into Europe.

On June 18, authorities disrupted an alleged “criminal organization” operating in at least three Spanish cities. The “family clan” running the enterprise “committed tax fraud and money laundering crimes” to generate cash for “Al Qaeda terrorist militias in the Syrian region of Idlib.” EUROPOL described the organization as “part of a huge international clandestine structure, with the aim of attacking the Western economic system as a form of terrorism.”

 

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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