U.S. targets suspected al Qaeda leader in Idlib, Syria

This screen shot is taken from a short video posted online by jihadists. It purportedly shows the aftermath of a U.S. drone strike in Idlib province, Syria on Sept. 20.

The U.S. launched a drone strike on a suspected al Qaeda leader in Syria’s Idlib province yesterday, but provided few details about the intended target. Jihadists on social media posted a short video of a car set ablaze by the bombing, saying that one or more members of Hurras al Din (HAD), an al Qaeda group, were traveling in it.

“U.S. forces conducted a kinetic counterterrorism strike near Idlib, Syria, today, on a senior al-Qaeda leader,” LT Josie Lynne Lenny, a spokesperson for CENTCOM, said in a statement. “Initial indications are that we struck the individual we were aiming for, and there are no indications of civilian casualties as a result of the strike.”

It appears the intended target of the strike was a Tunisian HAD leader known as Abu Al Bara al Tunisi, an ideologue who has proselytized on behalf of the group. One or more other HAD members, including a figure known as Abu Hamza al Yamani, may have been in the vehicle as well.

The U.S. military conducts sporadic airstrikes on al Qaeda targets in Idlib province, but offers little clarity on its choice of targets.

Idlib is dominated by Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS), an al Qaeda offshoot that has been at the center of jihadist controversies since its formation in early 2017. HAD, a smaller organization, was formed in 2018 and is led by al Qaeda veterans. HAD often advertises its role in al Qaeda’s network in its media.

One of the veterans leading HAD is a jihadist known as Abu Hammam al Shami (a.k.a. Faruq al Suri), an experienced military trainer whose career began in pre-9/11 Afghanistan, where he taught new recruits at al Qaeda’s Al Faruq camp.

The U.S. State Department has offered a reward of up to $5 million for Abu Hammam and two other HAD emirs. “All three leaders have been active in al Qaeda (AQ) for years and remain loyal to AQ leader Ayman al Zawahiri,” the State Department reported in Sept. 2019.

Earlier this month, Abu Hammam al Shami posted a statement online in which he criticized HTS for holding several HAD members for more than a year. Abu Hammam called on HTS to adjudicate the matter in a common sharia court overseen by Abu Qatada al Filistini, a leading pro-al Qaeda cleric. HAD has repeatedly tried to mediate its disputes with HTS in independent sharia courts for several years.

HAD was among the dozens of jihadist groups and individuals to congratulate the Taliban on its victory in the Afghan war last month. In a twopage statement posted in early Sept., the group held up the Taliban as a model for the jihadists to emulate elsewhere.. The al Qaeda group has repeatedly praised the Taliban in the past as well.

However, HAD and HTS, which also praised the Taliban’s victory, are frequently at odds with one another. And there remains great uncertainty over the extent of al Qaeda’s network and command structure inside Syria.

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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