BEIRUT – Al-Qaida’s Syrian branch was left reeling Friday after its military chief was killed in an apparent army airstrike, adding to confusion over the future path of the most powerful group opposing both President Bashar Assad and the Islamic State group.
Abu Humam al-Shami, who trained in Afghanistan alongside plotters of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and whose Nusra Front controls wide parts of northwestern Syria, was killed by an explosion at a meeting of commanders on Thursday in Idlib province.
The Sunni Muslim militant group, loyal to the successors of Osama bin Laden, is one of the two most powerful anti-Assad forces in Syria. It split off from the Islamic State group, which rejects al-Qaida as insufficiently radical.
Al-Shami’s death comes at a time when the Nusra Front’s future direction has been in doubt, even as it has expanded its territorial grip in the northwest by crushing mainstream, Western-backed groups.
Sources in the group have said it was considering severing its ties to al-Qaida, a move that could result in more support from Persian Gulf Arab states hostile to both Assad and the Islamic State group.
The Syrian military said it had carried out Thursday’s attack, which also killed a number of other Nusra leaders. A Syrian military source said the headquarters had been struck from the air.
Jihadi sources had initially said Thursday’s blast was the result of an airstrike by a U.S.-led coalition that has been bombing the Islamic State group in Syria. However, the coalition denied mounting any strikes in the province in the preceding 24 hours. While the coalition has focused on the Islamic State group, the United States has occasionally also targeted Nusra Front figures.
Other groups on the battlefield were trying to assess the impact of the killing, with some saying the Nusra Front would quickly replace the slain commander.
“Everyone is still trying to figure out what happened yesterday. Two of the leaders were killed in coalition airstrike around a week ago,” said the commander of a rival Islamist brigade in northern Syria.
“Abu Humam’s killing is very significant. … But this group has built itself in a way that when one of its leaders is killed, it won’t leave a gap.”
The leader of a mainstream rebel group in northern Syria said there been no immediate repercussions on the ground.
Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the war in Syria using sources on the ground, said al-Shami’s was more important than the Nusra Front’s overall leader, Abu Muhammed al-Golani. It would take time before the impact of his death became clear, Abdulrahman added.
He said at least seven Nusra Front leaders had been killed since Feb. 27, when Nusra was also hit by airstrikes in Idlib province.
The Nusra Front is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States and has been sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council. It is far more powerful than mainstream groups favored by the United States and its Arab allies to battle both the Islamic State group and Assad’s government.
It is currently a major force in fighting against government forces and allied militia around the northern city of Aleppo, where its fighters took part in a major attack on a state security building this past week.
It is also fighting in southern Syria, where the army and allied militia have launched a major offensive, and its fighters have frequently clashed with the Islamic State group in a number of locations.
Contacts in Nusra Front could not be reached on Friday. Abdulrahman said the group appeared to have ordered a media blackout after announcing al-Shami’s death.
The Nusra Front last year issued a 23-minute video detailing al-Shami’s jihadi history and taking aim at the Islamic State group.
It included a statement to camera by al-Shami accusing the Islamic State group of breaking a written cease-fire agreement with him and booby-trapping a building with explosives and barrels of chlorine before withdrawing from a civilian area.
The biography released by the Nusra Front says al-Shami served as a military trainer for al-Qaida in Afghanistan at one of its main training camps in Kandahar. Later, in Iraq, he trained leaders for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of the al-Qaida wing that morphed into the Islamic State group.
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