The Cable

U.S. Hits al Qaeda in Syria For Second Time This Week

The air war in Syria grinds on, and moves West

UNSPECIFIED, UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 07:  A U.S. Air Force MQ-1B Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), carrying a Hellfire missile lands at a secret air base after flying a mission in the Persian Gulf region on January 7, 2016. The U.S. military and coalition forces use the base, located in an undisclosed location, to launch airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, as well as to distribute cargo and transport troops supporting Operation Inherent Resolve. The Predators at the base are operated and maintained by the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, currently attached to the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED, UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 07: A U.S. Air Force MQ-1B Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), carrying a Hellfire missile lands at a secret air base after flying a mission in the Persian Gulf region on January 7, 2016. The U.S. military and coalition forces use the base, located in an undisclosed location, to launch airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, as well as to distribute cargo and transport troops supporting Operation Inherent Resolve. The Predators at the base are operated and maintained by the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, currently attached to the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

American warplanes struck a car carrying several members of the Khorasan Group in Syria on Tuesday night as part of the Pentagon’s widening campaign against al Qaeda in the war-torn country, a senior Defense Department official confirmed Wednesday.

The strike in the the northwestern city of Idlib is the second attack this week against the Qaeda-linked militants allied with the al-Nusra rebel group. Until recently, the Pentagon almost exclusively targeted the Islamic State in Syria, and stopped short of attacking al-Nusra rebels who seek to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

U.S. aircraft are permitted to strike al Qaeda — or other groups that threaten American forces and interests — although officials insist their targets in Syria are mostly limited to ISIS.

The latest strike on the Khorasan militants, which has not been officially acknowledged, appears to have happened on a crowded city street. Footage claiming to show the aftermath of the attack shows a damaged, blood-streaked city bus next to the remains of the militants’ vehicle and a destroyed gas station.

U.S. officials declined to estimate how many militants were killed, or if any Khorasan leaders were involved. Witnesses said the attack killed three in the vehicle, along with one woman standing nearby, and injured 10 bystanders.

It comes just two days after U.S. aircraft killed Firas al-Suri, a spokesman for al-Nusra and longtime al Qaeda member. That strike, on Sunday, killed about 20 fighters, the senior Defense official said Wednesday.

The Pentagon has yet to confirm al-Suri’s death. Still, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook was careful Monday to portray al-Suri as a member of al Qaeda rather than al-Nusra. “We have always considered al Qaeda leaders to be legitimate targets,” Cook told reporters. He said targeting the group “continues to be an ongoing, active part of our efforts.”

On Wednesday, the Defense official said the Khorasan Group has been involved in planning large-scale strikes against Western targets, and noted American aircraft have hit the organization since the opening days of the U.S. air war in Syria in August 2014.

The attack on a target not fully identified by American officials is consistent with Obama administration rules that don’t require full, positive identification of a suspected militant in order to launch a strike.

Photo credit: JOHN MOORE/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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