Massive Blast Eliminates Leadership of Prominent Syrian Islamist Rebel Group

By Patrick Goodenough | September 10, 2014 | 12:08am EDT

Ahrar-al-Sham fighters engage in a gunbattle in a screengrab from an undated video posted by the group on its website. (Image: ahraralsham.net)

(CNSNews.com) – A large explosion in northwestern Syria reportedly has wiped out the leadership of Ahrar al-Sham, a prominent Islamist rebel group which experts say has ties to al-Qaeda but also cooperated at times with the mainstream Free Syrian Army.

Along with the better-known Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) and the al-Nusra Front – the official al-Qaeda branch in Syria – Ahrar al-Sham (“Free Men of the Levant”) includes many foreign fighters and has long been viewed by observers as one of the most effective and best-armed rebel groups fighting against the Assad regime.

Boasting some 20,000 fighters, Ahrar al-Sham is a leading member of a broader Islamist rebel coalition called the Islamic Front, which in a message posted online confirmed the “martyrdom” of Ahrar al-Sham leader Hassan Abboud, 11 of his “companions” who were named, as well as “"several other leaders” who were not identified.

“They died through a car bomb while they were meeting in rural Idlib,” it said. “They died after years of Jihad against the Taghut of the Levant.” (Taghut is a theological term in Islam for one who severely transgresses or oversteps the line, a word frequently used by opponents to refer to Assad or his regime.) It's was not immediately clear who launched the attack.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an independent monitoring group, said about 28 people were believed to have died in the blast. Al-Jazeera television reported that the bombing occurred during a high-level meeting in an underground bunker.

The Assad regime’s SANA news agency reported that 28 members of the “so-called ‘Ahrar al-Sham’ terrorist organization” had been killed, noting that the group was a member of the Islamic Front, “which receives weapon and money from a number of Gulf states, on top of them Al Saud regime.”

The Islamic Front message gave no indication of the suspected perpetrator of the bombing. Ahrar al-Sham and other Islamic Front groups are not only warring against the Assad regime but have also been involved in the messy inter-rebel conflict, fighting alongside al-Nusra and against ISIS.

The Islamic Front, which has received funding from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, wants to replace the Assad regime with an Islamic state governed by shari’a, but claims its jihad is confined to Syria, unlike the broader goals of ISIS and al-Nusra, both of which are U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations.

Ahrar-al-Sham fighters in Syria with a captured tank. (Image: ahraralsham.net)

A report last year by a U.N.-mandated commission of inquiry into the Syria conflict identified Ahrar al-Sham as an “independent Salafi” group which had “attracted more radical elements of the opposition and subsequently gained more legitimacy among the opposition armed groups.”

A more recent report by the inquiry, released two weeks ago, accused Ahrar al-Sham, along with al-Nusra, of abducting hundreds of civilians in Latakia province in August 2013. It said Ahrar al-Sham had also targeted women and children as hostages for use in prisoner exchanges.

At one point late last year the Obama administration saw the Islamic Front as a potential ally as it tried to prod the now-stalled Geneva process aimed at ending the Syrian civil war.

“We can engage with the Islamic Front, of course, because they’re not designated terrorists,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in mid-December, describing it as “an alliance of prominent Islamist groups in the Syrian opposition.”

In the end the outreach failed, reportedly after the Islamic Front refused to meet preconditions including undertaking to stop working directly with al-Nusra.

According to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal, Abu-Khalid al-Suri, who was named by the U.S. Treasury Department as al-Qaeda’s “representative in Syria,” was a key leader in Ahrar al-Sham and worked closely with Abboud until al-Suri’s death in a suicide bombing early this year. ISIS was blamed for that attack.

Long War Journal reported Tuesday that influential al-Qaeda figures, including a man identified by the Treasury Department last month as a senior al-Nusra leader and al-Qaeda “facilitator,” had posted messages on Twitter mourning the deaths of the Ahrar al-Sham leaders.

Writing on the Carnegie Endowment’s Syria in Crisis site, Syria specialist Aron Lund said the list of the dead in the Islamic Front message “reads like a who’s who of Ahrar al-Sham leaders.”

“Of course, there may still be influential but unknown figures left who could step into the void and prevent Ahrar al-Sham from fracturing. But if not, it seems that one of Syria’s most important rebel groups has been decapitated.”

MRC Store