Several senior al Qaeda leaders were killed in a blast Thursday believed to be the result of a Syrian air force strike on a jihadist meeting in the northwest Syrian province of Idlib. Among the dead was Jabhat al Nusra’s top military commander, Abu Hamam al-Shami, also known as Abu Hamam.
The blast rocked a high-level al Qaeda meeting in the village of Habeet near the border with Turkey. Syrian rebel sources say Nusra fighters were told to maintain social media silence after the attack and not to provide any information to the press.
Initially, Reuters and other news agencies reported the strike on the jihadist gathering had been mounted by U.S. warplanes but American officials quickly denied that, saying no American warplanes had been operating within 200 miles of Idlib. “We did not conduct any strikes west of the Euphrates River in Syria in the past 24 hours,” said Army Major Curt Kellogg, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command.
Later, Syria’s state-run news agency SANA claimed government forces were responsible for the attack and implied the blast had been the result of a targeted airstrike. The news agency said al-Shami had been killed in the raid—a claim initially denied by al Nusra, which said he had been wounded in the attack, but later confirmed by the group.
From its own sources, the respected geopolitical risk consultancy, the Soutane Group named in a series of tweets the other dead top al Qaeda operatives as Abu Musab al-Falastini, Abu Omar al-Kurdi, and Abu Al-Bara al-Ansari—all senior leaders of al Nusra and longtime al Qaeda loyalists.
The death of al-Shami alone represents a major blow for al Nusra, which in recent weeks had been recovering from the emergence of its jihadist rival the Islamic State, and had started to attract significant numbers of fighters again, many of them defectors from moderate and Islamist insurgent militias.
In the past three months al Nusra has maintained an onslaught against two Western-backed rebel bridges, Harakat al-Hazm, one of the White House’s most trusted militias fighting President Bashar al-Assad, and the Syria Revolutionaries Front—seizing in the process a large swath of Idlib and proclaiming the captured territory a jihadist emirate. Last weekend, in the face of al Nusra’s attacks Hazm dissolved itself.
While targeting brigades in Idlib that had been receiving Western aid, al Nusra has maintained good operational relations with other moderate and Islamist groups in Aleppo, coordinating attacks on Syrian government forces and trying to repel an offensive aimed at encircling insurgent-held districts in the northern Syrian city. On Wednesday, al Nusra fighters were in the vanguard of an insurgent effort to capture an important government intelligence building on the western outskirts of the city.
How the the loss of a significant number of its top echelon will impact al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria remains at this stage unclear. But there are likely to be ramifications. The airstrike has coincided with an attempt by Qatar to persuade al Nusra’s leadership to rebrand and in return for funding from the Gulf State to sever ties ties with al Qaeda and form a new entity aligned ideologically with Islamist rebel brigades in Syria.
Reuters reported this week that the Qatari initiative—part of the quid pro quo of the deal is that al Nusra starts fighting ISIS again—may have been making headway with some emirs ready to agree. The report, though, was dismissed publicly by Abu Maria Al-Qahtani, the commander of Nusra in Deir ez-Zour, himself a firm critic of ISIS.
Even so, a variety of rebel and jihadist sources confirm a rift in al Nusra over ISIS and whether the group should be fighting the rival jihadis or cooperating with them.
All four of the military leaders killed Thursday were fierce critics of the Islamic State but al Qaeda loyalists at the same time. Al-Shami pledged his allegiance to al Qaeda in front of Osama bin Laden, shaking his hand as he did so.
A year ago al-Shami, who became a jihadist in the mid-1990s and fought in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as Syria, appeared in an al Nusra propaganda video criticizing ISIS. In the video, which was posted online shortly after al Qaeda disowned ISIS, al-Shami explained that he tried to broker a ceasefire between the two groups as fighting was raging between them. He said he had met with the deputies of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and suggested their ideological differences could be settled by a Sharia (religious) court.
They rebuffed him, telling him, he claimed, that either “ISIS will annihilate everyone else, or ISIS itself would be annihilated.”
Last November, efforts were being made by some jihadist veterans to lay the groundwork for an alliance of convenience between archrivals al-Nusra and ISIS and a major meeting between leaders from both groups was held in a farmhouse west of Aleppo. Shortly after, ISIS fighters were dispatched to help—at least in a symbolic way—al Nusra’s battles against Western-backed bridges in Idlib.
Senior Syrian opposition leaders shortly after the meeting blamed Washington for creating the circumstances that made it possible for the jihadist archrivals to sit down and talk. They accused the Obama administration of fostering jihadi rapprochement by launching what they described as ill-conceived airstrikes on al Nusra while at the same time adamantly refusing to target the forces of President al-Assad in the U.S. military intervention in the region. U.S. warplanes conducted a series of airstrikes against al Nusra last autumn.
For most of 2014, fighters from al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, joined moderate and Islamist Syrian rebels in battling ISIS. Since the November meeting there have been few clashes between the jihadists competitors, with only personality-based flare-ups occasionally erupting.
Since then, ISIS fighters have avoided interfering with al Nusra’s self-declared emirate in Idlib. And, noticeably, the al Qaeda affiliate has adopted harsher governance tactics in territory it controls in northern Syria, including more beheadings that mirror the barbarity of ISIS. One Islamist rebel, Muhammad al-Amin, complained in a Facebook statement recently that “moderates” in al Nusra had been sidelined as the group’s leadership focused on prioritizing an ISIS-like emirate and appeared intent on imitating al-Baghdadi.