The leader of Syria’s Islamist militant group al-Nusra Front has been killed in the country’s coastal province on Friday, said Syrian state TV, although state news agency SANA quickly withdrew an alert saying the same thing.
“The terrorist Abu Mohammad al-Golani, chief of the al-Nusra Front affiliated to al-Qaeda, has been killed in the campaign in the northwestern province of Latakia,” television said, according to AFP.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which closely monitors the fighting in Syria, said senior Nusra Front leaders contacted by activists in Latakia and the eastern Deir el-Zour province denied al-Golani had been killed.
Other Nusra Front sources said they could not confirm or deny the report “because contact with al-Golani was cut,” the Observatory said in a statement. A rebel commander in a Damascus suburb contacted by The Associated Press said he believed al-Golani was “alive and well” based on his contacts with other fighters including those from Nusra Front. He declined to elaborate or be identified for security concerns.
The report comes as the fragmented rebels have suffered significant losses on the battlefield, according to Associated Press. Syrian troops killed at least 40 opposition fighters, including Nusra Front members, earlier Friday in an ambush near Damascus, the government said.
The assassination of al-Nusra front’s leader, if confirmed, is unlikely, however to deal a major blow the ragtag armed opposition groups, said Michael Ryan, a scholar from the Washington DC-based Middle East Institute.
“The way that al-Qaeda affiliates and groups organize themselves, it’s very much like a small corporation, and they always have very experienced people who can move up [to assume leadership],” Ryan told Al Arabiya, noting that other al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are still powerful forces in the conflict-stricken nation.
But Golani’s death could be a boost for the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, which regards any armed opposition as “terrorists,” including the groups that receive support from the West and Arab states.
Earlier this year, the United States declared Golani to be a global terrorist, claiming al-Qaeda had tasked him with installing Islamic Sharia law across Syria and had also ordered numerous suicide bombings.
Al-Nusra was designated a terrorist organization by the United States last year.
(With AFP, AP)