Zahran Alloush, the head of Jaysh al Islam, one of the most powerful insurgent groups in the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, was killed in an aerial raid that targeted his group's headquarters, two rebel sources said on Friday.
They said a secret headquarters of the group, which is the largest rebel faction in the area and has thousands of fighters, was targeted by what they described as Russian planes. A Jaysh al Islam member told VICE News that Alloush was killed during a meeting at the site, which was held in the town of Otaya and "attacked by 10 missiles."
Syrian state media later confirmed that Alloush and other Jaysh al Islam officials had been targeted in an aerial raid.
Several rebel group leaders have been killed since Russia began a major aerial campaign on September 30 in support of its ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose troops earlier in the year had suffered a series of setbacks.
With thousands of trained fighters, Jaysh al Islam ("Army of Islam") is among the biggest and most organized rebel groups in Syria, and has been effectively running the administration of Eastern Ghouta. The group was formed from dozens of local Islamist and Salafist rebel factions. Like other members of the Islamic Front coalition, it is widely believed to be backed by Saudi Arabia.
Alleged video of the strike that killed Alloush was broadcast on Al Mnanar Channel 3 later on Friday.
Before setting up Jaysh al Islam, Alloush had founded Liwa al-Islam, or the Brigade of Islam, with his father Abdallah, a Salafist Syrian cleric based in Saudi Arabia.
Alloush was ideologically at odds with the Islamic State and al Qaeda, espousing a more moderate brand of Islam.
But Joshua Landis, the director of the University of Oklahoma's Center for Middle East Studies and an editor for the blog Syria Comment, wrote earlier this month that the difference between Alloush's ideology and that of al Qaeda was "one of shades of grey." He cited a video in which he said Alloush calls for cleansing Damascus of all Shiites and "Nusayris" — an old term for the country's Alawite minority, of which Assad is a member.
"This video and the language of Alloush demonstrates how difficult it is to draw a clear line between the ideology of the Islamic Front and that of the al-Qaida groups," Landis wrote. "They both embrace foreign jihadists and encourage them to come Syria to join the fight. They both call for the resurrection of an Islamic Empire and they both look back to the Golden Age of Islam for the principles upon which the new state will be founded. Their political philosophy and blue print for the future is largely based on a similar reading of Islamic history and the Qur'an."
In a recent interview with the Daily Beast, Alloush was asked if his group applied Sharia law in the areas it controls.
"Jaysh al Islam does not intervene in the judiciary body in our areas," he replied. "We have representatives in the judiciary councils. The judiciary councils include many sheikhs and jurists who represent the diversity of our community. We believe in the rule of institutions."
"While democracy is used to serve people's interests in the West, democracy is manipulated in our countries to bring villains to rule as agents for outside powers," he added. "We believe that the future of Syria after Assad should be governed by a technocratic body which has the skills and the qualifications. We do not believe that Syria should be ruled by sectarian or partisan rule, but by a technocratic body that represent the diversity of the Syrian people. We do not see ourselves as Islamic. We are Muslims."