Middle East

Body of jihadist leader found in Idlib

File - Jamal Maarouf’s SRF has been reeling since he declared war against the Nusra Front

BEIRUT: An ally of the Nusra Front announced Monday that it had discovered the grave of its founder in an area vacated by the Syria Rebel Front, a leading U.S.-backed militia.

The claim was made by the jihadist group Jund al-Aqsa, which, along with the Nusra Front, evicted the Syria Rebel Front and the Hazm Movement, both Free Syrian Army-aligned groups, from areas of rural Idlib province earlier this month.

Jund al-Aqsa said the body of its founder, Sheikh Abu Abdel-Aziz al-Qatari, had been discovered in a 33-meter-deep well, which it said had been used as a dumping site for bodies by the Syria Rebel Front, led by Jamal Maarouf.

It said the grave, in Maarouf’s hometown of Deir al-Sunbol, had been used by the Syria Rebel Front to dispose of Islamist fighters and “those seeking to unite” the various rebel factions.

The Nusra Front and Jund al-Aqsa seized on local displeasure with Maarouf’s militia to evict it and the Hazm Movement, another FSA group, from a number of villages in Idlib province.

Maarouf has acknowledged the existence of the site and claimed that several civilian victims whose bodies have been unearthed were in fact regime informers and agents.

An anti-regime media activist group in Idlib said Qatari, whose real name was Youssef Othman, was the “founding father” of the Nusra Front, who then split from the group to form Jund al-Aqsa.

Other accounts of Qatari’s jihadist career maintained he was a veteran of the original mujahedeen movement in Afghanistan, and also fought with Al-Qaeda in Iraq against U.S. troops.

Qatari disappeared in mid-January during a trip to Deir al-Sunbol, part of a bid to mediate between Maarouf and the Al-Qaeda splinter group ISIS, Islamist sources said.

Maarouf in January launched a successful campaign to eject ISIS militants from Idlib province.

The news of the discovery came as a local FSA commander died of his wounds, 10 days after being targeted in a bomb attack.

Jihad Zaatour was a leader of the Fursan al-Haqq Brigade, another U.S.-backed mainstream rebel group, centered in the town of Kafranbel, Idlib.

He was wounded when an explosive device targeted his car, at the outset of the confrontation between the Nusra Front and the FSA groups.

Observers have warned that the infighting between mainstream rebels and jihadist groups could have repercussions in next-door Aleppo province if the fighting spreads there.

On Sunday, pro-Islamist media outlets accused another FSA unit, the Dawn of Freedom Brigade, of assassinating Abu Ahmad al-Mashadani, the Nusra Front commander for the town of Tal Rifaat, which is located 40 kilometers north of Aleppo.

Reports in some pro-opposition media said the Nusra Front was preparing an attack on FSA groups in Tal Rifaat as a response to the killing, while others speculated that the Nusra Front was preparing to move against the nearby area of Afrin, which is under the control of Kurdish militias.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 11, 2014, on page 8.

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