AMMAN // An explosion killed four top ISIL leaders near the border with Israel and Jordan this week, striking the single biggest blow against the group in southern Syria in more than a year.
The blast killed Abu Mohammad Al Makdessi, head of the ISIL-affiliated Khalid Bin Walid Army, and his top three aides: Abu Uday Al Homsi, the group’s military emir; Abu Dujanna Al Idlebi, the security emir; and Abu Ali Shbat, a religious official.
Syrian rebel sources said other fighters were also killed in the blast.
The explosion happened on Wednesday in the village of Shajara, about 25 kilometres north-west of Deraa city in the Yarmouk Basin, where the Khalid Bin Walid army has its stronghold. It tore apart a building in which the militants were meeting, and apparently having their pre-dawn Ramadan meal.
Shajara is less than 7km from the border with Israel, and about 4km from the frontier with Jordan.
No one has publicly claimed responsibility for the attack, which rebel sources suggest was a missile strike. The US-led coalition against ISIL, which has been conducting strikes in Syria, has been operational in the border area in recent days, but typically announces raids it conducts.
On Thursday, US aircraft struck two tactical vehicles near Al Tanf, on the Syria-Iraq border, close to the Jordanian frontier, in the third strike there in as many days.
US army Col Ryan Dillon, the spokesman for US-led operations against ISIL in Syria and Iraq, tweeted that the US forces did “not seek to fight Syrian regime or pro-regime forces. However we remain ready to defend ourselves against any threat”.
On Tuesday, US aircraft hit a tank, two artillery pieces and an anti-aircraft weapon manned by pro-Assad forces in Tanf, where US special forces are operating. About 150 US personnel are thought to be based there.
Israel, which has also hit targets in Syria that it deems to be a security risk, routinely does not make public announcements, prompting speculation it was behind the attack.
Some moderate rebels have suggested the Syrian regime may have been involved.
On Twitter, an account that appeared to be connected to the Khalid Bin Walid Army confirmed the deaths, saying they had happened because of an “air strike by the crusader coalition”. “When you kill our emirs, you will strengthen us”, it said.
Colonel Najim Abu Majid, a rebel commander heading efforts by moderate factions to fight ISIL in the south, also confirmed the explosion and the deaths. He said it would prove to be a serious setback for ISIL’s efforts to hold and expand its territory in southern Syria.
“It’s like cutting the head off the snake,” Col Abu Majid said, adding it would be difficult for the Khalid Bin Walid Army to find competent replacements for so many senior figures.
Nonetheless, replacements have been found, according to other rebels.
They said Mohammad Al Refai, known as Abu Hashim, has apparently taken over as the group’s commander, with Abu Tayem, from the southern town of Inkhil, appointed military emir, and Abu Khatab the new security emir. No details were immediately available as to the men’s identities or backgrounds.
It is the second time that the leader of an ISIL-linked group has been killed in a strike in southern Syria. In November 2015, Mohammad "Abu Ali" Al Baridi, known as Al Khal, or "the uncle", was killed in a suicide bombing. Al Khal had commanded the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, the forerunner of the Khalid Bin Walid Army, and had opened up a bridgehead for ISIL in southern Syria.