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Syrian al-Nusra leader reportedly killed in airstrike

The Nusra Front controls large parts of northern Syria [Anadolu/Getty]

Date of publication: 6 March, 2015

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An attack targeting leaders of the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria has reportedly killed several commanders including Nusra's main military commander Abu Humam al-Shami, though the group denies he died.

The military chief and several top commanders of the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front have been reported killed in northwestern Syria, where the militia has been making major gains in recent months.

Syrian state media, a monitoring group and a local activist reported that Abu Humam al-Shami had been killed, but provided contradictory information about the circumstances of his death.

However, official Nusra sources have not yet confirmed his death, telling al-Araby al-Jadeed that he was wounded in the strike but is now in stable condition.

Syrian news agenncy SANA, however, reported that, "Shami was killed with a number of other leaders during a special operation by the army" in Idlib province, without specifying a date.

British-based activist group, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Shami may have been one of five Nusra leaders wounded in an air strike in Idlib province on 27 February by the US-led coalition attacking fighters in Syria.

An official Nusra statement that day named two commanders killed in the strike but did not mention Shami.

Local Syrian activist Ibrahim al-Idlibi told AFP Shami had been killed in the February raid but that Nusra had not published his name due to the "sensitivity" of the information.

The fate of the Nusra group's overall leader, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, was not clear, although there were reports that he had been in the area of the attack.

'Hit to morale'

Reports of Shami's death came as the al-Qaeda affiliate consolidates gains in northern Syria.

Already the most powerful military force in Idlib province, Nusra handed a major defeat to one of its rivals - the Western-backed Hazm movement - at the weekend when it seized Hazm's base in Aleppo province.

Nusra also claimed to have led a spectacular assault against a regime intelligence headquarters in Aleppo city on Wednesday, blowing up a tunnel near the building before storming the surrounding area.

Attacks on the group's leadership are "an indication of the rising strength and influence of Nusra on the ground in Syria in recent months," said Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre think tank.

"Because it operates in a decentralised manner, not top down, the loss of a leader is something that Nusra can recover from with minimal damage," she said.

Thomas Pierret, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, called Shami's death a "severe blow" but said that the impact should not be overstated.

"Organisations of this type are very well structured and prepared for the loss of important leaders," he said.

But Idlibi, the local activist, disagreed.

"It's a definite hit to the morale of Nusra's supporters," he said.

He said there were rumours of serious internal disputes within Nusra's ranks regarding an apparent Qatar-led proposal for Nusra to split off from al-Qaeda.

"They want to turn it into something like the Taliban - into a political movement," he said.

Idlibi said Nusra political chief Abu Mohamed al-Jolani is in favour of the split, while Shami was against it.

Nusra has emerged as the most powerful jihadist group in northwestern Syria and, as well as fighting President Bashar al-Assad's regime, has clashed with moderate rebels and its jihadist rival the Islamic State group.

Shami is reported to have travelled to Afghanistan in the late 1990s and was eventually put in charge of Syrian fighters there.

According to a Lebanese security source, he served a four-year sentence in the notorious Roumieh prison alongside high-profile Islamists.

He then returned to Syria, where he became Nusra's main military commander.

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