Tension is running high in northern Syria following the recent killing, by the hardline Nurreddine al-Zinki movement, of an al-Qaeda veteran who held a senior position in the ranks of the Tahrir al-Sham alliance, a local activist said.
Al-Qaeda veteran Abu Ayman al-Masri, whose real name is Ibrahim Mohammed Saleh al-Banna, was killed Thursday night (February 15th) as he passed though a rural Aleppo province checkpoint manned by Nurreddine al-Zinki.
Nurreddine al-Zinki claims it did not intend to kill al-Masri, though a reformed jihadist who spoke with Diyaruna rejected that narrative.
Either way, tension has been building in Idlib and in nearby Aleppo since al-Masri was killed, Aleppo activist Faisal al-Ahmad told Diyaruna.
Al-Masri was killed and his wife was wounded by gunshots fired at their car as they attempted to pass through a Nurreddine al-Zinki checkpoint between the villages of al-Huta and Bashkateen in western rural Aleppo on Thursday night.
Nurreddine al-Zinki admitted to killing al-Masri when he did not comply with orders to stop at the checkpoint.
A pursuit ensued and shots were fired at him.
However, Tahrir al-Sham has accused Nurreddine al-Zinki of deliberately opening fire on al-Masri, with the intention of killing him.
"Al-Masri was transported to al-Huda hospital and then to Dar Azaa hospital, where he died of his wounds," al-Ahmad said.
His wife was transported to al-Huda hospital and then to Turkey for treatment of wounds to her head and spine, he added.
Groups announce merger
Nureddine al-Zinki and Ahrar al-Sham on Sunday (February 18th) announced they were merging to form the Syrian Liberation Front (Hayaat Tahrir Syria), and called on other opposition groups to join them, AFP reported.
Both groups have a strong presence in opposition-held parts of northern Syria, along the border between Aleppo and Idlib provinces.
Idlib province is held mostly by Tahrir al-Sham, an extremist alliance dominated by the former al-Nusra Front (ANF).
"This is an attempt to form a counterweight to Tahrir al-Sham, which is apparently positioning itself for a new fight with al-Zinki," Sam Heller, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, told AFP.
Nureddine al-Zinki and Ahrar al-Sham are the two most substantial non-extremist factions in Syria's north, he said, adding that "al-Zinki in particular has been an obstacle to Tahrir al-Sham's attempts to consolidate control".
Meanwhile, activist al-Ahmad told Diyaruna, fear prevails among residents of rural Aleppo and Idlib, as this move portends an escalation in tension that may well lead to bloody clashes that will put civilian lives at risk.
"There has been a state of high alert in the area," he said, "evidenced by stringent checking of identification documents and the heavy deployment of armed fighters on both sides."
"An atmosphere of highly charged hostility prevails between the two sides, each of which have engaged in recriminations to undermine the other," he added.
Al-Masri's killing 'not accidental'
According to reformed jihadist Nabil Naim, a founding member of the Islamic Jihad in Egypt who has renounced extremism, al-Masri's killing "was not accidental".
"It is rather part of the ongoing war of liquidations and assassinations between extremist groups as they come under fire in Syria, with each group attempting to extend its control at the expense of others," he told Diyaruna.
Naim noted that relations between the armed factions in northern Syria, particularly between al-Zinki and Tahrir al-Sham, have been very tense of late, with reciprocal assassinations taking place between them.
These have targeted first-line emirs and commanders on more than one occasion, he said.
Naim confirmed that al-Masri is Ibrahim Mohammed Saleh al-Banna, born in al-Sharqiyah, Egypt, in 1965. A senior al-Qaeda figure, he was one of the first to travel to fight in Afghanistan and later in Libya and then Syria.
Al-Masri initially joined the Islamic Jihad, Naim said, later leaving to join al-Qaeda, where he served as the group’s intelligence director and worked in the media division and subsequently in the document-forging division.
He played a key role in al-Qaeda’s movements and operations in Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, and most recently in Syria, after joining ANF, which later merged into the Tahrir al-Sham alliance.