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US kills veteran al-Qaeda leader in Syria drone strike

Ahmed Salameh Mabrouk, an Egyptian militant known as Abu Faraj, was targeted in a drone strike near Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib province
Ahmed Salameh Mabrouk was targeted by a US drone strike (Screengrab)

A veteran member of al-Qaeda attached to the recently disaffiliated Syrian arm of the militant group was killed on Monday by a US drone strike near Idlib.

The militant organisation and the Pentagon confirmed Ahmed Salameh Mabrouk's death. 

Mabrouk, an Egyptian militant, came to fame after appearing next to Abu Mohamed al-Golani, who leads Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, in a video released in August announcing the group's plans to disaffiliate from al-Qaeda.

Killed near Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib province, Mabrouk, also known as Abu Faraj, had longstanding connections to al-Qaeda's leadership.

Despite the group's claims of a split from al-Qaeda, numerous analysts told Middle East Eye this year that al-Golani's video appearance with Abu Faraj, who is known to have longstanding relations with its leader, Ayman al-Zawahari, was significant. 

As a confidante of the al-Qaeda leader since the 1990s, Abu Faraj had operated on behalf of al-Qaeda in Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan, Russia and Azerbaijan, according to analysts at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, an American think-tank known for hawkish views on Iran.

According to academic and longtime Syria commentator Charles Lister, one of Abu Faraj's laptops was once seized by the CIA in Azerbaijan. The ceased laptops were described by CIA operatives at the time as the "Rosetta Stone of al-Qaeda."

In April, Abu Faraj was the target of an earlier drone strike in which Egyptian national Rifai Taha was killed. The pair were attending a meeting with al-Qaeda figures in Syria.

Rebranding itself as Fateh al-Sham, the Nusra Front has played a prominent role in the recent attempt by rebel groups to break the siege around Aleppo. 

The group eulogised Abu Faraj. 

"Ahmed Salama, known as Abu Faraj the Egyptian and a member of the shura (consultative council) of Fateh al-Sham Front, was martyred after a coalition air strike in the west of Idlib province," Fateh al-Sham said in a statement on the Telegram app.

A Pentagon spokesman said on Monday that the United States is aware of the former al-Qaeda affiliate’s name change, but stressed that the group’s militants are still viewed as Nusra by Washington.

The group was recently exempted from an attempted ceasefire deal aimed at ending the siege of east Aleppo and facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid into the besieged rebel-controlled areas.

Rebel groups were originally opposed to the ceasefire deal as it included plans for Russia and the US to collaborate on air strikes against Fateh al-Sham.

The ceasefire deal also included plans for US-Russia collaboration on air strikes against the Islamic State group.

Opposition rebel groups belatedly agreed to the deal despite plans to target Fateh al-Sham minutes before the ceasefire was due to take place. 

Both the US and Russia have been conducting numerous operations aimed at targeting Fateh al-Sham because of its former allegiance to al-Qaeda.

In August, the US Central Command or CENTCOM, told Middle East Eye that the group remained a "legitimate threat" and was still clearly linked to al-Qaeda. 

“The position of the United States on Nusra has not changed, and Nusra fighters remain a legitimate threat. They may have changed the name, but from all appearances they are still committed to advancing al-Qaeda’s core ideology and terrorist agenda,” said a CENTCOM spokesperson.

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