American aerial attack on senior operatives of al-Qaeda’s Guardians of Religion in Idlib: Initial overview and assessment

 Initial Overview
  • On June 30, 2019, American planes attacked senior operatives of a jihadist organization called Guardians of Religion (Hurras al-Din), affiliated al-Qaeda branch. Reportedly the operatives were in a training facility northeast of Idlib (about nine miles southwest of Aleppo). The facility was completely destroyed in the airstrike. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) a meeting or the organization’s leadership was being held at the time.
  • Reportedly, the strike killed or wounded nine operatives, six of them leaders (according to other versions, three or four were killed and several were wounded). Of the leaders killed and/or wounded, two were Algerian, two were Tunisian, one was Egyptian and one was Syrian (SOHR, July 1, 2019). According to some reports, the planes took off from the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey.
 Smoke rising from the attack (qurtuba_love Twitter account, June 30, 2019).     The ruins of the Guardians of Religion building, attacked in an American airstrike (Murasiloun, June 30 2019).
Right: The ruins of the Guardians of Religion building, attacked in an American airstrike (Murasiloun, June 30 2019). Left: Smoke rising from the attack (qurtuba_love Twitter account, June 30, 2019).

The location of the attack in a residential neighborhood southwest of Aleppo (Google Maps).
The location of the attack in a residential neighborhood southwest of Aleppo (Google Maps).

  • The Syrian and Arab media published the names of Guardians of Religion operatives who were killed or wounded in the attack, referred to as senior commanders in the organization. Apparently the most senior was Abu Amru the Tunisian, a member of the organization’s Shura Council and a judge in the organization’s internal court (a picture of his body was disseminated by a Twitter account affiliated with jihadist organizations in Syria). Other foreign operatives who were killed or wounded were Abu Yahya the Algerian, Abu Dujana the Algerian, Abu Dhar the Egyptian and Abu al-Fida the Tunisian.

On June 30, 2019, the American Central Command (CENTCOM) announced that an al-Qaeda training compound in Syria had been attacked. According to the announcement, the attack targeted operatives planning “external attacks” outside Syria against American “citizens, [America’s] partners and innocent civilians.” According to the American military, northwestern Syria remains a safe haven for al-Qaeda to “actively coordinate terrorist activities, including planning attacks throughout the region and in the West.” According to the Pentagon it will continue to target Islamic State and al-Qaeda leaders in coordination with American allies and partners “to prevent both groups from using Syria as a safe haven” (CENTCOM announcement, June 30 2019).

  • A Syrian website affiliated with the rebel organizations reported that a source close to the Guardians of Religion said a meeting of commanders was being held in the facility at the time of the attack. They were discussing a way of resolving a conflict that had recently appeared in the ranks of the organization because of its participation alongside other rebel organizations in the rural area around Aleppo (Enab Baladi, July 1 2019). The source said that two operatives, Abu Dhar the Egyptian, and Abu Yahya the Algerian, both of whom had been either killed or wounded in the attack, had been expelled because they had refused to fight alongside one of the organizations affiliated with Turkey against the Syrian army (Enab Baladi, June 25, 2019). It was also reported that the Headquarters for the Liberation of al-Sham was convinced that Turkish-affiliated organizations were responsible for transmitting the information on which the June 30 American airstrike was based (al-Watan, a news website affiliated with the Syrian regime, July 2, 2019).
Response of the Guardians of Religion
  • On July 1, 2019, the Guardians of Religion claimed the attack of the “Zionist-Crusader coalition” had targeted the “Sharia institute” [i.e., a Muslim religious institution] of the Guardians of Religion in the rural area west of Aleppo. They added that a number of people had been killed and wounded.
  • The Guardians of Religion denied the American claim that the attack targeted a training camp for attacks abroad, calling the American announcement “a bald-faced lie.” The attack, claimed the Guardians of Religion, was similar to coalition attacks on mosques, locations for Qur’an memorization and religious institutions in Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria, “caused by hatred of Islam and those who believe in it.” The Guardians of Religion called on jihad fighters to unite their ranks and pledge that “the attack will not deter us from the path of jihad and the blessed project [to enforce the religion of Allah]” (Telegram, July 1, 2019).

Apparently the response of the Guardians of Religion was propaganda and its veracity is doubtful. Representing the American-led coalition attack as targeting Muslims and religious institutions is false and its objective is most probably to alienate moderate Muslim communities from America and increase support for al-Qaeda.

Significance of the attack: initial assessment
  • The airstrike on the Guardians of Religion was carried out at a time when the organization is actively participating in defending the Idlib region from a Syrian army ground offensive. The dominant organization leading the defense is the jihadist Headquarters of the Liberation of al-Shams, as opposed to the Guardians of Religion, which is more “Syrian” in nature. It also has a serious dispute with the al-Qaeda leadership (and apparently therefore it is not in the Americans’ crosshairs). The Headquarters of the Liberation of al-Sham and the Guardians of Religion are cooperating to repel the Syrian army attack despite the serious disputes between them (see Appendix).
  • The American airstrike on al-Qaeda targets in the Idlib region was unusual (apparently the last time an America attacked an al-Qaeda target in the region was in October 2016[1]). According to the CENTCOM announcement, the reason behind the attack was the threat of attacks abroad being planned by the Guardians of Religion. It is also possible that the timing of the attack was a function of an operational-intelligence opportunity to strike the Guardians of Religion with an attack on the meeting place of its senior operatives (as noted, a Syrian news website affiliated with the rebel organizations contradicted the American announcement, claiming instead that the objective of the meeting was settle internal differences).
  • In any event, in ITIC assessment, the airstrike and its successful outcome have two significances:
    • The United States sent the message that despite the fact that it had lowered its profile in Syria, and despite the fact that the Syrian arena is controlled by other actors, especially Russia, America does not intend to ignore terrorist threats abroad originating with the jihadist organizations operating in Syria. The United States made it clear that such threats, whether from ISIS or organizations affiliated with al-Qaeda, will be responded to by American attacks on terrorist targets in Syria.
    • In ITIC assessment, the result of the American attack may hurt the Guardians of Religion to a certain degree and possibly also a deepen the internal disputes between the rebel organizations in the Idlib region. That may weaken the defenses of the organizations in the Idlib region, of which the Guardians of Religion are a part (although not a central part).
The Guardians of Religion[2]
  • At the end of February 2018, six groups of local jihadist Al-Qaeda operatives in northern Syria announced their withdrawal from the Headquarters for the Liberation of al-Sham (the former Jabhat al-Nusra) and the establishment of a new jihadi organization called the Guardians of Religion. The new organization was headed by Abu Hamam al-Shami, a veteran al-Qaeda operative, who fought with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. He was sent to Iraq, where he joined Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (the founding father of ISIS). Prominent in the leadership of the new organization was a group of Jordanian al-Qaeda operatives who opposed the independent (“Syrian”) path taken by Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the Headquarters’ leader.
  • On March 4, 2018, six jihadist groups swore allegiance to the Guardians of Religion: Jaysh al-Malahem (the Army of Heroic Tales), Jaysh al-Sahel (the Coastal Army), Jaysh al-Badiyah (the Desert Army), Saraya Kabul (the Kabul Companies), Jund al-Sharia (the Sharia Army), and Jund al-Aqsa (the al-Aqsa Army) (Enab Baladi, al-Alam, February 28, 2018).

Logo of the Guardians of Religion, an organization established by dissidents who split from the Headquarters for the Liberation of al-Sham.

Logo of the Guardians of Religion, an organization established by dissidents who split from the Headquarters for the Liberation of al-Sham.

  • Behind the (additional) split among al-Qaeda supporters in Syria was the strong disagreement between the al-Qaeda leadership and its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri on the one hand, and Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the leader of the Headquarters for the Liberation of al-Shams, on the other. The disagreement focused on the nature of the ties between al-Qaeda and its branch in Syria: was the branch in Syria allowed to conduct its own “Syrian” policies, adapt itself to the difficult constraints in which it found itself, or did it have to follow orders from Ayman al-Zawahiri, whose view (from afar) and considerations of the situation on the ground in Syria were completely different?
  • On February 28, 2018, the dispute reached its climax when al-Zawahiri harshly criticized the Headquarters and its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Julani. Al-Zawahiri accused them of violating Jabhat al-Nusra’s oath of allegiance to al-Qaeda and of persecuting al-Qaeda supporters in Syria. His criticism came after the Headquarters had detained dozens of al-Qaeda-affiliated operatives who opposed the independent path taken by al-Julani. One of the operatives detained was Abu Hamam al-Shami (who later became the Guardians of Religion’s leader)..
  • The Guardians of Religion operates in the Idlib region, the last important territory remaining under the control of the rebel organizations and organizations affiliated with al-Qaeda in general. The Headquarters for the Liberation of al-Sham is the dominant organization, which cooperates with other jihadist organizations. The Idlib region is currently under strong pressure from the Syrian army (which is supported by Russia), which began a ground offensive against the rebel organizations two months ago. The Guardians of Religion entered an ad hoc cooperation with the Headquarters and play an important – although not central – role in opposing the Syrian army and halting the offensive.

[1] On October 4, 2016, an American drone attacked a car carrying Ahmed Salameh Mabrouk (aka Abu al-Faraj the Egyptian) a senior figure of the Front for the Liberation of al-Sham (which predated the Headquarters for the Liberation of al-Sham). The attack was carried out in a suburb of the city of Jisr al-Shughour, which lies about nineteen miles southwest of Idlib. Abu al-Faraj the Egyptian and his driver were killed. According to the American Department of Defense, he was on of the most important al-Qaeda commanders in Syria and had ties to Osama bin Laden (al-Jazeera, October 3, 2016). Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis confirmed that Abu al-Faraj was the target of the attack (AP, October 3, 2016).
[2] For further information about the split in the ranks of al-Qaeda and the establishment of the Guardians of the Religion, see the March 8, 2018 bulletin, Split among Al-Qaeda’s supporters in Syria, in light of severe differences of opinion regarding the nature of the ties with Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri."