US turns up the heat on ISIS and al-Qaeda
Beirut - A sharp escalation in the United States’ largely covert military campaign to cripple the Islamic State (ISIS) by eliminating its leadership and the economic means to sustain its self-proclaimed caliphate across Syria and Iraq has taken a withering toll on the group and its territorial base.
ISIS’s external operations arm, whose campaign of terrorist attacks across the Middle East, Western Europe and Asia has intensified as the group’s battlefield defeats mounted, has been particularly targeted by the US-led coalition engaged in Syria and Iraq.
The Americans have also begun targeting al-Qaeda leaders, with at least a score of attacks in Syria since January 1st, an indication that Washington is increasingly concerned about the resurgence of the original jihadist organisation in Syria under a new breed of dynamic younger leaders determined to eclipse the breakaway ISIS.
The United States attacked the Sheikh Suleyman training camp in western Aleppo province operated by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JSF), considered to be al-Qaeda’s wing in Syria. The unusual attack, which included strikes by a swarm of missile-firing MQ-9 Reaper drones, was the fifth such attack on al-Qaeda and related groups in January. More than 100 fighters were reported killed.
Less than 24 hours earlier, two US B-2 stealth bombers, on a 32-hour round-trip mission from a base in Missouri, battered two ISIS camps south of Sirte, Libya, with 108 precision-guided bombs, killing another 80-90 fighters in a demonstration of US strategic reach.
The Pentagon said Abd al-Jalil al Muslimi, a Tunisian veteran with long-standing ties to numerous al-Qaeda external operations chiefs was killed in a January 12th air strike near Saraqib, Syria, while Mohammad Boussadoun al-Tunisi, another Tunisian involved in terror attacks on Western targets, died in a strike in Idlib, Syria, five days later.
These men were associated with the Khorasan Group, an elite unit of two dozen al-Qaeda veterans infiltrated into Syria since 2014 by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The Americans say its objective is to launch terror attacks in the West.
With an estimated 10,000 fighters, JSF is the biggest of al-Qaeda’s branches and matches ISIS’s military strength but, while ISIS is steadily losing ground in Syria and Iraq, JSF has expanded in Syria’s northern Idlib province.
These developments seem to be behind the US focus on the group. The Americans had left JSF alone in part because it was fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad and ISIS and, as happens in the perplexing Syrian war in which alliances are constantly shifting, sometimes even shared the same objectives as CIA-supported rebel forces.
The word is that it has used the Western focus on hammering ISIS to build up its power but its emergence as a major player in Syria and long-held US concerns that it plans to renew attacks on the West have made it a target.
The US decision to widen the campaign against ISIS to include al-Qaeda and all its affiliate groups, such as JSF, indicates that these organisations are seen as a threat to the West and that their capabilities and influence could increase significantly if the ISIS caliphate is crushed.
Many of the key figures killed in the recent attacks were linked to al- Qaeda’s external operations. In air strikes on January 1st and January 3rd more than 20 al-Qaeda operatives were killed.
The Pentagon said in the first attack US jets raked a convoy leaving an al-Qaeda headquarters at Sarmada, in north-western Syria, with Hellfire missiles. The second hit the headquarters itself.
Among those killed were Abu Khattab al-Qahtani, an al-Qaeda veteran of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Yemen, and Abu Omar al- Turkistani, a leader of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Turkistan Islamic Party and, reputedly a JSF commander.
However, for now the most immediate US objective is to destroy ISIS’s caliphate and degrade its military capabilities as the group comes under mounting pressure in Syria and Iraq and faces the loss of its last two urban strongholds, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in northern Syria.
“The steady destruction of the leadership of the Islamic State, plus the loss of territory, is eroding the group’s appeal and potency,” observed former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, now a terrorism specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “The Islamic State is facing a serious crisis.”