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Two militants from an Al-Qaeda-affiliated group were killed in northwestern Syria in a drone strike of unknown origin late on 24 February.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the two men were killed while riding a motorcycle near the village of Qah, close to the Turkish border, in what is believed to be a US airstrike.
The US military has not commented on the strike, which was the latest in recent years targeting Al-Qaeda-linked militants in the region.
The SOHR reported that the two were members of Huras al-Din or the “Guardians of Religion.” The group was formed from al-Qaeda militants who broke away from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), previously known as the Nusra Front, the official al-Qaeda franchise in Syria.
In June last year, a drone strike by the US-led coalition in Idlib province killed Abu Hamzah al-Yemeni — a senior member of Horas al-Din.
In 2017, a US airstrike killed a former aide to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s second in command in Syria, Abu al-Kheir al-Masri.
US official Brett McGurk noted in 2017 that Syria’s northwest Idlib province had become “the largest Al Qaeda haven since 9/11.”
US efforts to provide TOW anti-tank missiles to the Nusra Front, along with weapons shipments from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, played a crucial role in helping the extremist group, then leading a coalition known as Jaish al-Fatah, or the Army of Conquest, in capturing Idlib province in the spring of 2015.
Nusra leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani later claimed to break ties with Al-Qaeda, rebranding the Salafi-Jihadi group as HTS while forming the National Salvation Government to rule Idlib.
Huras al-Din was formed in February 2018. At least half of the group’s 700-2,500 members are foreigners, and non-Syrian Al-Qaeda veterans dominate its leadership.
While Huras al-Din’s core leadership and fighters are mostly defectors from HTS, the two groups have worked together to carry out combat operations against the Syrian government.
Though the US military now targets Al-Qaeda-linked militants in Syria at times, US and allied efforts to arm al-Qaeda militants in Idlib and Syria broadly comprised one aspect of the broader Western and Gulf-backed attempt to topple the Syrian government starting in 2011.