US says strike targeted top Qaeda official in Syria

Beirut: A US air strike in Syria targeted Al-Qaeda members, reportedly killing its spokesman, and the Islamic State group has been forced from a key town in the latest setbacks for the jihadists.

Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said the US military conducted an air raid on a meeting of officials of Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front yesterday in northeast Syria, targeting Abu Firas al-Suri and other leaders.

“We assess that Al-Qaeda senior leader Abu Firas al-Suri was in that meeting and we are working to confirm his death,” Cook said today.

He said Suri was a Syrian national and a “legacy” Al-Qaeda member who fought in Afghanistan in the late 1980s and 1990s.

He “worked with Osama bin Laden and other founding Al-Qaeda members to train terrorists and conduct attacks globally,” Cook said, adding that yesterday’s strike killed several enemy fighters.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Suri, his son and at least 20 jihadists of Al-Nusra and Jund al-Aqsa and other fighters from Uzbekistan were killed in strikes on positions in Idlib province.

Seven were high-ranking jihadists, the Britain-based Observatory said.

Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum, a US think-tank, said Suri was a top jihadist official.

Suri “was a very senior member of Al-Nusra, but organisations like Al-Nusra aren’t debilitated because they lose a single senior leader”, he said.

“Their organisational structures are well prepared for targeted assassinations, which are usual business for them.”

Suri, whose real name was Radwan Nammous, fought against Soviet forces in Afghanistan where he met Bin Laden and the founding father of global jihad, Abdullah Azzam, before returning to Syria in 2011.

A temporary ceasefire between government forces and rebels has largely held since February 27, but it does not cover Al-Nusra and IS.

The break has allowed Russia and the US-led coalition that has been bombing IS in Syria to concentrate on their fight against the jihadists.

Al-Nusra has generally kept a low profile since the truce brokered by the United States and Russia came into force.

But on Friday, the Al-Qaeda affiliate and allied rebels pushed regime loyalists out of Al-Eis, a strategic town in the northern province of Aleppo, killing 12 members of the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement.

“It was Al-Nusra’s biggest operation since the ceasefire began,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.