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Will Al-Zawahiri's Killing Have Impact on Al-Qaida Affiliates in Syria? 


A fighter affiliated with the HTS group in Syria's northwestern Latakia province, prepare to fire rockets using a domestically constructed launcher toward regime positions, reportedly in retaliation to an earlier Russian air strike, July 22, 2022.

The killing of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a U.S. strike in Afghanistan will likely have little impact on the terror group’s affiliates in war-torn Syria, analysts say.

Al-Zawahiri was killed over the weekend in a U.S. missile strike in Kabul in Afghanistan, U.S. President Joe Biden announced Monday.

In Syria, where al-Qaida has endorsed several militant groups during the country’s decadelong conflict, several leaders have reacted publicly to the death of al-Zawahiri.

Abu Abdullah al-Shami, a high-ranking leader of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group, published a note in an online chat room on Telegram Tuesday, eulogizing al-Zawahiri’s death.

HTS, formerly known as al-Nusra Front, is a powerful Islamist group that controls most of Idlib province in northwest Syria. Designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S., the group was the main affiliate of al-Qaida in Syria until 2018 when it formally severed ties with the global terror group.

Despite cutting such ties, the Syrian militant group has maintained its al-Qaida-inspired ideology, experts say.

“That’s why the death of someone like al-Zawahiri could be seen as a symbolic blow to the jihadist movement in Syria,” Sadradeen Kinno, a Syrian researcher who studies Islamic militant groups in the country.

Other militant groups based in Idlib such as Huras al-Din and the Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria have pledged allegiance to al-Qaida.

“Zawahiri’s death will not have any direct impact on the way these groups operate in Syria,” Kinno told VOA. “Their organizational structures are largely independent from that of central al-Qaida.”

Other analysts say that al-Zawahiri was a symbol of an older generation of al-Qaida that wasn’t necessarily of significant relevance to today’s extremist groups in Syria and elsewhere.

Nicholas Heras, a Syria expert at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, says the younger generation of al-Qaida-inspired leaders have a different approach than that of the older generation within the terror group, including al-Zawahiri.

Their approach, Heras said, “focuses on building local support for a society based on ideals approved by al-Qaida.”

“In Syria, the younger generation has taken over and the focus for jihad there is to build a sustainable society based on Salafist principles,” he told VOA, adding that, “Zawahiri was already yesterday's news in Syria when he died.”

FILE - Syrian firefighters extinguish fire following artillery shelling by the Syrian regime on a fuel depot affiliated to the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) jihadist group, Feb. 16, 2022 in the northwestern rebel-held town of Dana.
FILE - Syrian firefighters extinguish fire following artillery shelling by the Syrian regime on a fuel depot affiliated to the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) jihadist group, Feb. 16, 2022 in the northwestern rebel-held town of Dana.

Syria’s Idlib province is the last major stronghold controlled by forces opposed to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Syrian forces and their Russian allies have been conducting operations in the region.

The United States also has occasionally carried out strikes in Idlib, targeting al-Qaida-linked leaders, including one in June that killed Abu Hamzah al-Yemeni, a senior commander of Huras al-Din.

In addition to these strikes, experts say rivalry among the various terror groups present in Idlib have forced some of them to keep a low profile.

Some leaders of smaller al-Qaida-affiliated groups, including Huras al-Din, have been arrested by the more powerful HTS and “many leading members are in hiding, so Huras al-Din is already marginalized, and I don’t think Zawahiri’s death will change that,” said Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a Syria researcher at Swansea University in Britain.

It remains to be seen with al-Zawahiri’s successor will have any different impact on al-Qaida’s affiliates in Syria and elsewhere around the world, he said.

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