Airstrike targeted Al Qaeda leadership in Syria, U.S. military says

Jihadis say a U.S. airstrike hit this location in Idlib, Syria earlier today.

The American military conducted an airstrike against al Qaeda in Syria (AQ-S) “leadership at a facility north of Idlib, Syria” earlier today, according to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). It is the second time the U.S. has struck al Qaeda operatives in Syria since late June.

The “operation targeted AQ-S leaders responsible for attacks threatening U.S. citizens, our partners, and innocent civilians.” CENTCOM adds that the “removal of this facility will further degrade their ability to conduct future attacks and destabilize the region.”

The U.S. military did not identify the specific individuals or organizations that were put in its crosshairs, nor did it elaborate on the threat they pose.

“Northwest Syria remains a safe haven where AQ-S leaders actively coordinate terrorist activities throughout the region and in the West,” CENTCOM’s statement reads “With our allies and partners, we will continue to target violent extremists to prevent them from using Syria as a safe haven.”

Jihadists on social media reported on the airstrike hours before the U.S acknowledged it. Some Telegram channels shared a short video allegedly showing the scene of the bombing. Screenshots of that footage can be seen above and below.

A screenshot from a video purportedly showing the aftermath of the U.S. airstrike in Syria.

According to various al Qaeda-associated Telegram channels, the facility that was bombed belonged to Ansar al-Tawhid. The location was either a headquarters or safe house for Ansar al-Tawhid, and members of another organization, Hurras al-Din (or the Guardians of Religion), may have been visiting at the time.

Both Ansar al-Tawhid and Hurras al-Din are part of al Qaeda’s international network. However, al Qaeda’s precise hierarchy inside Syria is not publicly known after years of leadership disputes and infighting have muddied the picture.

Hurras al-Din (HAD) is led by al Qaeda veterans. Its overall leader is Abu al-Qassam (a.k.a. Khalid al-Aruri), according to a monitoring team that reports to the United Nations Security Council. Al-Qassam was once one a top deputy to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al Qaeda in Iraq, and has myriad ties to other al Qaeda actors.

On June 30, the U.S. bombed an alleged training facility near Aleppo Province, where current or recently fired HAD members were stationed. At the time, CENTCOM issued a statement similar to the one posted today, highlighting the threat posed to the West by al Qaeda leaders living in northwestern Syria, but not providing much detail. It appears that the June 30 bombing killed several jihadists who were recently involved in a dispute with their HAD comrades. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, US military targets al Qaeda operatives in Syria.]

Ansar al-Tawhid is thought to be the latest incarnation of a group first known as Jund al-Aqsa, which was an al Qaeda front group. Although some reports identified Jund al-Aqsa as an Islamic State-affiliated group, that wasn’t accurate. Some of the organization’s cadres defected to the so-called caliphate, but much of the group remained in al Qaeda’s orbit. Indeed, Jund al-Aqsa’s leaders signaled their loyalty to Ayman al-Zawahiri and al Qaeda’s senior leadership on multiple occasions.

Ansar al-Tawhid emerged in early 2018, after jihadi infighting caused problems for several months. According to some reports, Ansar al-Tawhid was formed after its leader, Abu Diyab al-Sarmini, met with the head of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Abu Muhammad al-Julani. HTS and Julani have been in the middle of various cantankerous disagreements over leadership and strategy in Syria.

Not long after both groups emerged in 2018, Ansar al-Tawhid and HAD formed a joint venture known as Hilf Nusrat al-Islam. That union appears to have been short lived, though various al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria continue to cooperate with one another, as well as other insurgents.

Ansar al-Tawhid has been heavily involved in the fighting against Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its allies. In particular, the group’s members have been trying to thwart a regime offensive in southern Idlib province and the surrounding areas.

Ansar al-Tawhid and the Turkistan Islamic Party conducted joint attacks earlier this month. The statement above was issued by Ansar al-Tawhid.

Earlier this month, Ansar al-Tawhid claimed a joint operation alongside the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), which is also affiliated with al Qaeda. The two targeted regime forces with heavy artillery in or near the town of Sukayk. Assad’s forces and their allies advanced on Sukayk in the southern part Idlib province. A copy of Ansar al-Tawhid’s statement claiming cooperation with the TIP in Sukayk can be seen above. The two have worked together in other attacks as well.

Ansar al-Tawhid has also trumpeted its attacks on Russian-backed forces. In mid-August, the group released photos and a video documenting a missile launch that allegedly targeted Russia’s proxies. One of the images can be seen below.

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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3 Comments

  • Arjuna says:

    So all the talk about Al Julani possibly being at the safe house/ meeting was unfounded RUMINT?

  • JP Billen says:

    Questions:

    Where does Mohammed Islambouli fit in, if at all? Is he still in Syria or back in Egypt? Or kicked upstairs, at 62 he is a bit old to be orchestrating terrorist attacks isn’t he? Or dead?

  • Chris Blanchard says:

    This was a great move by the US – the groups are/were on the ropes, decide to meet under a cease fire and the US takes a great opportunity to get these bad actors. I’m surprised there isn’t a greater positive response from news outlets to this story.

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