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Syrian Rebel Group Names Hashem Al-Shaikh
New Leader After Deadly Blast
September 10, 2014
AFP, Sylvia Westall | Reuters
Arab News, Wednesday 10 September
BEIRUT, Lebanon :
An image grab taken from an online propaganda video of Syria's
Islamic Front shows the new leader of Ahrar al-Sham group, Hashem
al-Sheikh, known as Abu Jaber, speaking at an undisclosed location in
Syria. Ahrar al-Sham named new chiefs on Wednesday after a devastating
blast that killed nearly 30 members of its leadership in northeastern
The new head of the Islamist group Ahrar Al-Sham, once one of the
strongest militias in the Syrian civil war, has urged fellow insurgents
to fight on after a blast on Tuesday wiped out its senior leadership.
In a video on YouTube, Ahrar Al-Sham said Hashem Al-Sheikh, also known
as “Abu Jaber,” had been named its new leader and Abu Saleh Tahan its
new military chief. Another video showed a man identified as Abu Jaber
exhorting his men to fight on.
Among those killed in the explosion in
northwestern Syria was Ahrar Al-Sham’s former leader Hassan Aboud, said
the group which is part of the Islamic Front alliance fighting both the
Syrian army and the now dominant Islamic State movement.
Observatory for Human Rights, a group monitoring the conflict, said the
blast killed 28 of Ahrar Al-Sham’s commanders, dealing a major blow to
the organization that is believed to have received funds from Gulf
“Jihadi men of our nation ... do not let the crisis shake you
or the calamity divide you,” Abu Jaber said on the video while
eulogizing the dead. “Rise, let us die for what they have died for,” he
said in a statement read from behind a desk.
Some 50 of the group’s
leaders had gathered at a house when the blast went off inside,
according to the Observatory. There has been no claim of responsibility
for the blast, which took place in Syria’s Idlib province.
observers have described Tuesday’s incident as a gas attack. Abu Baraa,
a rebel figure from a group allied with Ahrar Al-Sham, said a doctor who
examined the bodies said there was little visible sign of external
The doctor saw bodies with frothing at the mouth and fluid
coming from the eyes and noses, Abu Baraa said, adding the group had
been meeting in a heavily fortified underground bunker.
“This was a
highly sophisticated attack in a location that was very secure,” he
said. Photos posted on social media claiming to show the victims of the
attack displayed bodies that did not appear to have significant external
Other reports suggested the victims had died from smoke
inhalation. It was not possible to independently verify any of the
reports or pictures or the cause of the deaths.
The Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons
(OPCW) said in a statement on Wednesday it had found “compelling
evidence” that chlorine gas was used “systematically and repeatedly” as
a weapon in northern Syria this year.
President Bashar Assad agreed
to hand over his chemical weapons stocks for destruction as part of a
deal that averted threatened US military strikes, but the continued
attacks have led to accusations he had not fully declared his arsenal.
The loss of its senior leadership has come at a significant time for
Ahrar Al-Sham, said Charles Lister, visiting fellow at the Brookings
“This potentially crippling blow comes during a period
in which Ahrar Al-Sham’s senior officials have begun adopting more
moderate stances in Syria, including considering joining larger moderate
coalitions,” he wrote in an analysis.
“The gutting of Ahrar Al-Sham’s
leadership will have major ripple effects in the opposition,” researcher
Aron Lund wrote on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s
“Unless Ahrar Al-Sham somehow manages to recover and
sustain its relevance as a major Islamist faction, the Islamic Front may
now be beyond repair,” he wrote.
Some supporters of the rival group
Islamic State celebrated Aboud’s death on social media, saying that
Syria had been “cleansed” of his presence.
In January another senior
Ahrar Al-Sham leader was killed in a suicide attack. Abu Khaled Al-Soury
had fought alongside Al-Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden and was close to
its current chief Ayman Al-Zawahri.
Islamic State, also known as
ISIL, had denied involvement in the January attack after being blamed
Ahrar Al-Sham, which has advocated Sharia law in Syria, was
once considered among the strongest insurgent groups in the civil war
but has since been overtaken by Islamic State.
The radical Islamic
State group has seized wide swaths of Syria and Iraq and views other
Islamist groups as its rivals.
US Secretary of State John Kerry
arrived in Baghdad on Wednesday as part of a tour of the Middle East
aimed at building military, political and financial support to defeat
(Additional reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi in
Amman and Ahmed Tolba in Cairo)
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