The "smart” missile attack that killed leading member of the al-Qaeda affiliated Horas al-Din group in northwestern Syria coincided with an American-Russian dispute at the United Nations Security Council on whether to the designate the organization as terrorist. The killing of Abou al-Qassam al-Urduni in the US drone strike served as a message to Russia on how to assassinate terrorists.
A western official told Asharq Al-Awsat that discussions at the Security Council revealed diplomatic differences between the two countries. Russia wanted to blacklist Horas al-Din, while American officials warned that such as move would provide an excuse for the Russian-backed regime forces to launch a military operation against opposition factions, instead of terrorists, in the Idlib countryside. The Americans believe in the need to reach a comprehensive vision on how to combat terrorism. International designation is among its options, not its only one, explained the official.
The Horas al-Din group was formed in February 2018 by members who had different with al-Nusra Front leader Abou Mohammed al-Jolani after he had broken off from al-Qaeda in 2016. Among the leaders of the new group was Khaled al-Arouri, known as Abou al-Qassem al-Urduni, and members Samir Hijazi, known as Abou Hammam al-Shami or Farouk al-Souri, Sami al-Aridi, known as Abou Mahmoud al-Shami, and Bilal Khreisat, known as Abou Khadija al-Urduni. Some 16 factions later joined Horas al-Din.
In April 2018, Horas al-Din joined Ansar al-Tawheed to form the Nusrat al-Islam bloc aimed at resisting the Sochi agreement reached between Russia and Turkey on Idlib. In late 2019, the US State Department designated Horas al-Din as a foreign terrorist organization. Abou Hammam al-Shami was also blacklisted. It put up a reward of 5 million dollars for anyone who would provide information about Sami al-Aridi, Samir Hijazi and Abou Mohammed al-Masri.
Horas al-Din, which boasts some 1,800 mostly non-Syrian members, is deployed in northwestern Syria in regions under Russian-Turkish understandings. On March 5, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan reached an agreement on their “determination to fight all forms of terrorism and eliminating all groups designated as terrorist by the Security Council.”
Weeks ago, Russian diplomats suggested that Horas al-Din be designated as terrorist by the Security Council. They were surprised when the Americans objected to the move, proposing that an agreement first be reached on how to combat terrorism. Washington sought to teach Moscow as “lesson” on how to assassinate wanted al-Qaeda fugitives.
The US and Russia had reached a “collision avoidance” agreement in 2017. The deal focuses on avoiding clashes between Washington’s allies deployed east of the Euphrates River and Moscow’s allies to its west. The US had in early 2018 attempted to crack down on terrorists in northwestern Syria, striking dozens of Khorasan group positions and members. The move was met with Russia’s objections. The few exceptions to the avoidance agreement was the assassination of ISIS leader Abou Bakr al-Baghdadi in the Idlib countryside last year. Washington had informed Moscow in advance that it was carrying out a military operation in its area of influence, but provided no further details.
The same scenario took place again on June 14 when an American drone struck Abou al-Qassam al-Urduni’s vehicle, eliminating the Horas al-Din leader. The use of the Hellfire missile was also a message to Russia. The missile is ideal for assassinations without leaving any civilian casualties. Abou al-Qassam is a friend and relative of Abou Mosab al-Zarqawi, who headed al-Qaeda in Iraq before his 2006 assassination. In 2015, he was among five prominent al-Qaeda members released by Iran in a swap.
US media reported that the smart Hellfire missile holds a 100-pound flying switchblade or an anvil covered in swords. It penetrated Abou al-Qassam’s vehicle, cutting through anything that came in its path. Horas al-Din announced his assassination some ten days after he was killed.
The Hellfire, or R9X, was developed by the Barack Obama administration to leave minimal losses in civilian lives and properties in the war on terrorism. The missile has been used six times in recent years. It was used to kill USS Cole bomber Jamal al-Badawi in Yemen in 2019 and deputy al-Qaeda leader Abou Khayr al-Masri in Idlib in 2017.
The American message to Russia was that this is how terrorist leaders are assassinated, not through the scorched earth policy that leads to massive destruction in civilian property and infrastructure, said the western official.