A prominent leader in Syrian al Qaeda offshoot Nusra Front was killed on Sunday in an air strike alongside at least 20 other militants, according to a monitoring group.
Abu Firas al-Suri was allegedly killed in a suspected U.S. air strike on a village in the opposition-held north western province of Idlib, The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks violence in the country, confirmed reports on websites by militant sympathizers that Abu Firas, “the Syrian”, was killed along with his son and a number of his companions.
While the Observatory said he was killed in a suspected Syrian or Russian air raid on a village northwest of the city of Idlib in northwestern Syria, two opposition sources said the attack appeared to have the hallmarks of a U.S. drone strike.
“The Sheikh was with his son and several companions,” said one of the sources familiar with details of the incident.
A U.S security official said the United States was aware of reports about Abu Firas’ death but had no information to offer on Sunday. Another source did not rule out it could be a Syrian strike.
U.S.-led coalition forces have previously targeted Nusra Front leaders in Syria.
Jihadi sources said Abu Firas was a founding member of the militant group who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s and was a senior member of its policy-making Shura Council.
He also worked with al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in rousing support among Pakistani supporters of the fundamentalist Taliban movement in Afghanistan several decades ago, the sources added.
They added that Abu Firas, who was a former Syrian army officer discharged in the late 1970s because of his Islamist leanings, played a significant role in training Muslim Sunni jihadists who came from many parts of the Arab world to Afghanistan to fight the Russian occupation of the country.
Abu Firas had many followers within the hardline group and gave commentaries released by Nusra Front on issues ranging from governance to religious jurisprudence, the rebel sources said.
Originally from Madaya, near Damascus, Abu Firas was an ardent opponent of ISIS’s style and ideologically in conflict with the militant group that occupies parts of Syria and Iraq.
“May God accept him as a martyr, he was a commanding figure. This was engineered by the Crusader axis,” said one of the sources.
A fragile “cessation of hostilities” has held in Syria for over a month as the various parties try to negotiate an end to Syria’s five-year-old civil war.
But the truce excludes ISIS and Nusra Front, and air and land attacks by Syrian and allied forces continue in parts of Syria where the government says the groups are present.