A Syrian rebel commander who fought alongside al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and was close current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, was killed by a suicide attack on Sunday, intensifying the infighting between rival Islamist fighters in the war-torn country.
The Observatory for Human Rights in Syria said Abu Khaled al-Soury — a commander of Salafi group Ahrar al-Sham also known as Abu Omair al-Shamy — was killed along with six comrades by al-Qaeda splinter group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Al-Soury was born in Aleppo, Syria, in 1963. A senior rebel source said he had been based in Afghanistan, but was sent by al-Zawahiri to Syria a few months ago on a mission to try to end the infighting.
Al-Soury’s death will deepen divisions among jihadis battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a rivalry that has killed hundreds of fighters in recent months, rebels said.
Two rebels told reporters that five ISIL members had entered Ahrar al-Sham’s headquarters in Aleppo and engaged its fighters before one ISIL fighter blew himself up.
“Sheikh Abu Khaled was an important jihadi figure, he fought the Americans in Iraq and in Afghanistan. They [ISIL] gave the Americans a present — a free gift — by killing him,” a rebel close to the Salafi group said. “He was a very important commander, he is a close friend of Sheikh Ayman [al-Zawahiri] and he knew Sheikh Bin Laden.”
Syrian rebels mourning al-Soury posted his photograph on social media accounts, while a fighter called for revenge, saying that the ISIL had “pushed it too far this time.”
Sources say that by killing al-Soury, the ISIL has taken the war between the jihadi factions to a new level, so the decision to do so must have been taken by the splinter group’s high command, most probably by leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Al-Baghdadi fell out last year with al-Zawahiri, as well as with the leader of Syrian al-Qaeda group al-Nusra Front.
ISIL, which has attracted many foreign militants to its ranks, is a small, but powerful force that emerged from the Sunni Islamist insurgency in Iraq.
In Syria, it has alienated many by imposing harsh rulings against dissent in areas it controls.
Elsewhere in Syria, prominent leftist writer Akram al-Bunni was abducted by Syrian intelligence agents as he left a wedding reception at a Damascus hotel on Saturday, opposition activists said on Sunday.
They said that al-Bunni, who spent two decades in a jail as a political prisoner, was snatched by agents from an intelligence division run by Hafez Makhlouf, al-Assad’s cousin.
Anwar al-Bunni, a human rights lawyer who was also a political prisoner for five years, said that his brother had riled the authorities by publicly supporting a democratic alternative to the four-decade rule of the al-Assads.
“This regime has not been satisfied that it stole 20 years of Akram’s life and the effect that left on his health,” Anwar al-Bunni told reporters on Sunday from Damascus. “We are trying to get medicine to him. He has a heart condition.”
He said that his brother, who is in his late 50s, had chosen to stay in Damascus despite the systematic persecution of dissidents since the uprising against al-Assad began in March 2011.
Akram was among thousands of dissidents, opposition members and rebels whose names appeared on a Syrian Ministry of Justice “terrorist list” that was leaked to an opposition news site two weeks ago, according to opposition sources.