A drone strike by the U.S.-led coalition in northwestern Syria killed a senior member of an Al-Qaeda-linked group, Syrian opposition activists and the U.S. military said on Tuesday.
The attack on the suspected militant, who was riding a motorcycle at the time, came shortly before midnight on Monday – the latest in a series of strikes over the past years targeting Al-Qaeda-linked militants in northwestern Syria.
The U.S. Central Command said its forces conducted “a kinetic strike” in Syria’s Idleb province, targeting Abu Hamzah al-Yemeni, a senior leader of the Horas al-Din group. Yemeni was travelling alone at the time of the strike, it said, adding that the initial review indicates no civilian casualties.
The opposition’s Syrian Civil Defense, also known as White Helmets, said the attack occurred just south of the rebel-held city of Idleb. The White Helmets said there were no other fatalities except the man on the motorcycle, adding that they have handed over the man’s body to morgue officials in Idleb.
Syrian opposition activists did not identify the slain man while the U.S. Central Command statement indicated he was a Yemeni citizen.
Members of Horas al-Din, Arabic for “Guardians of Religion,” are hardcore Al-Qaeda elements who broke away from Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, the strongest insurgent group in Idleb, the last major rebel enclave in war-torn Syria.
In June 2020, the U.S. military killed Khaled Aruri, a top Jordanian commander within Horas al-Din, also in Idleb. A drone strike in December 2019 killed a senior Horas al-Din commander, the Jordanian citizen Bilal Khuraisat, also known as Abu Khadija al-Urduni.
CENTCOM said in its statement that violent extremist organizations, including Al Qaeda-aligned ones such as Horas al-Din, “continue to present a threat to America and our allies.” It added that Al-Qaeda-aligned militants use Syria as a safe haven to coordinate with their external affiliates and plan operations outside of Syria.
“The removal of this senior leader will disrupt Al-Qaeda’s ability to carry out attacks against U.S. citizens, our partners, and innocent civilians around the world,” CENTCOM said.
Brett McGurk said at the time when he was the top U.S. envoy for the coalition battling the Islamic State group, that Idleb is the largest Al-Qaeda haven since bin Laden’s days in Afghanistan.
A U.S. airstrike killed Al-Qaeda’s second in command, former bin Laden aide Abu al-Kheir al-Masri, in Syria in 2017.
In February, the U.S. military killed the latest ISIS leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, in the Idleb province near the Turkish border. The first leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was also killed in a U.S. strike in Idleb, in 2019.
According to the Pro-government Athr Press, a U.S. official familiar with the operation was quoted by CNN as saying that “the United States is very confident that a drone strike killed Abu Hamzah al-Yemeni.” He added that”there was no need to notify the Russians.”
Areas in the Idleb governorate controlled by armed factions often witness clashes between Jabhat al-Nusra (HTS) and Guardians of Religion, some of which ended with the arrest of leaders of the Guardians of Religion. Al-Nusra has arrested more than 65 leaders of the Guardians of Religion Organization over the past two years, including some 17 commanders in the first and second grades intermittently.
This article was edited by The Syrian Observer. The Syrian Observer has not verified the content of this story. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.