Renewed intelligence efforts and targeted killings by the US Intelligence community continue to take down high level leadership in al Qaeda and affiliated groups.
A convoy of so called “technicals” traveling down a dirt road in northwestern Syria, was targeted by a US drone asset mere hours after 2016 ended. US intelligence had targeted the convoy, known to be transporting al Qaeda affiliated members with a number of High Value Targets (HVTs).
Among those targeted was Kattab al Qahtani, a high ranking al Qaeda veteran who had close ties to Osama bin Laden. Several other ranking members of al Qaeda affiliated militia groups in Syria also died in the strike, including a member from the Turkistan Islamic Party, an Islamist separatist group seeking to establish a sharia law nation independent from China. The group helped create the Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria, which takes active part in the ongoing Syrian civil war.
In total, the attack on the motorcade resulted in the death of 8 al Qaeda affiliated members.
The drone strike that saw the demise of al Qahtani was the first of many. Throughout Syria, drones under the control of US intelligence agencies have been hitting hard at an unmatched pace. The early days of 2017 alone saw the targeted killing of 50 militants by drone strikes. The majority of the targeted individuals were members from the Syrian al Qaeda branch, and many of them ranking veterans from insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Daesh is on the verge of collapse and this is diverting the attention toward al-Qaeda.
– Dana Jalal, Jihadist researcher, Sweden
On January 4, US directed warplanes from the anti-IS coalition struck the al Nusra group’s stronghold of Sarmada, killing 25 people. On January 5, US drone strikes across Syria killed 20 people. Between January 6 and January 11, a further 12 al Nusra fighters were killed by US coordinated efforts. Among the dead was Younis Shoueib, one of al Nusra’s leading profiles, and his son.
On January 8, a US Special Operations unit entered Syria by helicopter to intercept a vehicle transporting several Islamic State figures outside of Deir el Zour. None of the Islamic State members survived the encounter.
In response to these increasingly aggressive tactics deployed by the US against al Qaeda and their affiliates, al Nusra published a guide on how to avoid being targeted by drones and airstrikes. The guide urged to not use electronic devices, and to avoid using buildings with a single-point of egress.
The Syrian al Qaeda branch is widely considered by experts to be the largest and most active worldwide. Originally the Islamic State was a subservient affiliate to al Qaeda. Ultimately, it surpassed the group in 2014 when it announced its Islamic Caliphate and went on a large scale offensive across Syria and later in Iraq.
As Islamic State strategic gains and frontlines crumble, the group is seeing vast numbers of members defecting to familiar grounds, such as al Qaeda and other more traditional Salafist jihadist movements. However, in recent years, Western and regional intelligence services have managed to penetrate al Qaeda on a broad front, and establish a network of moles and operatives inside the organization. Through these individuals, the US and its allies are able to target ranking members of the Khorasan group, the core of al Qaeda leadership in Syria, ensuring that the organization is kept in disarray.
John Sjoholm, Middle East Bureau Chief, Lima Charlie News
John Sjoholm is Lima Charlie’s Middle East Bureau Chief, and the founder of the consulting organization Erudite Group. He is a seasoned Middle East connoisseur, with a past in the Swedish Army’s Special Forces branch and the Security Contracting industry. He studied religion and languages in Sana’a, Yemen, and Cairo, Egypt. He lived and operated extensively in the Middle East between 2005-2012 as part of regional stabilizing projects, and currently resides in Jordan. Follow John on Twitter @JohnSjoholmLC
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