A US airstrike in Syria is said to have killed more than 100 Al Qaeda militants on Thursday in what may have been the final counterterrorism campaign of Barack Obama’s presidency.
One B-52 bomber and an undisclosed number of aerial drones struck an Al Qaeda training camp situated in the Idlib province, west of Aleppo, an unnamed US defense official told Reuters on Friday. The Pentagon is confident that no civilians were killed in the attack.
The offensive comes less than a day after another joint bomber and drone operation hit two military camps in rural Libya, eliminating 80 to 90 Islamic State fighters. Mr. Obama directly authorized the Libya attack, although whether the same is true of the Syria strike is unclear.
While many associate Al Qaeda with their operations in Afghanistan, the jihadist group has been a player in the Syrian civil war since at least 2013. Now that the self-proclaimed Islamic State faces increased pressure from United States and Russian airstrikes, some are concerned that Al Qaeda may find room to expand into ungoverned regions, according to Reuters.
The US defense official referred to the militants killed as “core” Al Qaeda members, a term that differentiates them from members of the Syrian Al Qaeda affiliate group previously known as the Nusra Front.
While long maintaining its independence, the Nusra Front received arms and militants from Al Qaeda, in return for respecting its wishes. The Christian Science Monitor previously reported on the relationship between the two organizations, and their public split in July of last year.
Looking to take back the position it once held as the face of global jihad, in May Al Qaeda reportedly ordered Nusra to declare an Islamic "emirate." Such a move would mirror the actions of IS, attracting attention and likely recruits.
The Al Qaeda affiliate, however, had other plans. Rather than unilaterally establishing top-down rule over its territory, Nusra preferred a softer, “grass roots” approach to growing its influence.
By building local alliances and providing basic services such as traffic direction and price-controlled bakeries, Nusra aims to win local hearts and minds. The organization went as far as creating a public sector works department in Idlib to supply the war-torn area with water and electricity.
“[Nusra]’s entire methodology is geared toward transforming Syrian society so that [Nusra] ultimately answers a popular demand for an emirate rather than imposes one by force,” Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War previously told the Monitor.
The US government has been launching airstrikes against Islamic extremists for years, but their effectiveness is unclear. Meanwhile, President Trump’s inaugural address may signal a shift in strategy with its promise to eradicate Islamic terrorism “from the face of the Earth.”
This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.