BEIRUT: Two suicide bombers killed a senior Al-Qaeda operative Sunday, blowing themselves up inside the militant leader’s compound in the city of Aleppo, rebels and activists said.
The killing of Abu Khaled al-Suri, who rebels said was serving as Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri’s representative in Syria, falls against the backdrop of bloody rebel fighting between the Al-Qaeda breakaway group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), and an array of ultraconservative and more moderate opposition fighters.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Sunday’s assassination, but rebels quickly accused ISIS. Suri had been critical of the group, blaming it for the conflict pitting rebels against jihadists that has killed thousands of people across northern Syria since it began in early January.
Suri’s death could further complicate efforts to resolve those clashes, which have undermined rebel efforts to oust President Bashar Assad in Syria’s nearly 3-year-old civil war. Since the rebel infighting began, government forces have chipped away at opposition-held areas, including around Aleppo.
A native Syrian with longstanding ties to Al-Qaeda, Suri was a co-founder of Ahrar al-Sham, a prominent, hard-line rebel group that is part of a powerful alliance of seven groups known as the Islamic Front.
Akram al-Halabi, a spokesman for the Islamic Front, described Suri as “a big figure in global jihad,” and said he was appointed by Zawahri last year to mediate a dispute between the two Al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria: ISIS and the Nusra Front.
Speaking via Skype, Halabi said Suri had been critical of ISIS and its antagonistic approach toward other rebel factions. He said rebels believe ISIS, which Al-Qaeda publicly disowned earlier this month, was behind Sunday’s bombing.
“The first fingers of blame point to the state,” Halabi said, referring to ISIS. “Unfortunately this is going to make the infighting worse.”
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said two others were also killed in the attack, which it attributed to ISIS. The Observatory gets its information from a network of activists on the ground.
Suri had long been on the radar of Western intelligence agencies. In 2002, Spanish officials described Suri, whose real name is Mohammad Bahaiah, as the courier for the late terrorist leader Osama bin Laden between Afghanistan and Europe.
Islamic extremists have emerged as a powerful force in Syria’s civil war. The rise to prominence of hard-line Islamic militants like Suri has sent jitters through Western capitals, and dampened enthusiasm for the anti-Assad opposition.
Charles Lister, an analyst with the Brookings Doha Center, said Suri’s activities in Syria had been a source of concern for the U.S. and its allies.
“He is essentially a core Al-Qaeda veteran who almost certainly ... had extensive, close relations with [Osama] bin Laden,” and other senior leaders, Lister said. “The fact that he had such a high position in Ahrar al-Sham, and confirmed it himself, his Al-Qaeda history – it made elements in the U.S. administration potentially consider Ahrar al-Sham as a terrorist organization.”
Although ISIS has been roundly accused of avoiding clashes with regime troops, the Observatory said that a militant from the group blew himself up at an army checkpoint next to the Tabqa military airport in Raqqa province. There was no information about the casualties, the Observatory added.
Also Sunday, a car bomb exploded near a charity field hospital close to the Turkish border, wounding mostly medics and patients who had fled violence elsewhere in the country, activists and Turkish media said.
Turkish ambulance crews evacuated at least 11 of the wounded, including a 5-month-old baby, to Turkey, said Syrian activists of the Idlib News group.
Zidane Zenglow, a journalist working for the pan-Arab Al-Arabiya network, said at least one person was killed in the blast – a young girl, his cousin.
In Aleppo, a regime airstrike targeted a building in the Ansari neighborhood, killing eight people, including a rebel commander, the Observatory said. Pro-opposition media based in Aleppo said that five crude “barrel bombs” and five airstrikes took the lives of 20 people.
Regime helicopters dropped barrel bombs on locations throughout the country, from Deraa in the south to Aleppo in the north, as well as on the town of Yabroud, where a fierce campaign is underway, pitting the army, paramilitary groups and Hezbollah fighters against an array of rebel groups.
Activists and the Observatory reported fierce government shelling and airstrikes on Yabroud, and pro-opposition media have claimed that rebels continue to repulse attempts by the army, paramilitaries and Hezbollah to achieve advances against the strategic town.
The Observatory said Sunday that rebels killed and wounded an undetermined number of government troops and paramilitaries during an attack on two vehicles traveling between the nearby towns of Nabk and Sadad, which would indicate the rebels are trying to seize the offensive in the Qalamoun campaign.
Further north, in Idlib province, the Observatory said that a large number of residents of Khan Sheikhoun had left the town after more than half a dozen rebel groups announced over the weekend that they would be mount a new campaign in the area.
In Deir al-Zor, ISIS militants continued to clash with an alliance of rebel groups in a remote part of the province, while clashes at the military airport near the province’s capital between regime troops and rebels led to the death of nine rebels and the capture of four government soldiers, the Observatory said.
The Observatory said Saturday’s nationwide death toll hit 225 people, with nearly 200 of them fighters from the various groups.