The United States announced on 12 July that it had killed the Islamic State’s (ISIS) governor of Syria in a drone strike in the village of Galtan in the Jinderes district of the north-western Syrian province of Efrin on the border with Turkey. The U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) statement identified the slain man as “Maher al-Agal”, though a more precise transliteration is Maher al-Aqal (ماهر العقال). Riding on the motorcycle alongside Al-Aqal when he was killed was a “senior ISIS official” with whom he was “closely associated”. This ISIS official was “seriously injured during the strike”, CENTCOM notes, adding that the Jinderes strike caused no civilian casualties.
While Al-Aqal, a Syrian from Suluk in the Tel Abyad area of Raqqa province, was hardly a household name before this strike, he did not come from nowhere and his role within ISIS in Syria had been important for some time. A crucial ISIS operative in northern Syria was killed on 20 June 2020 in an airstrike assumed to be the U.S.’s handiwork, though never claimed. The operative was Fayez al-Aqal (Abu Saad al-Shamali), Maher’s brother.
Fayez was known as an extremist, even by ISIS’s standards, and had been released from Syria’s infamous Sednaya prison at the outset of the uprising in 2011. Fayez’s trajectory is familiar—it echoes that of Amr al-Absi (Abu al-Atheer), for example—because it forms part of one of the major underlying facts about Syria’s war: the Bashar al-Asad regime’s strategy to divide and radicalize the insurgency against it by bolstering the jihadists in the hopes of making the only alternative to the regime so unacceptable that the international community would in effect support Asad in suppressing it, which is more or less what ended up happening. (ISIS was willing to play along with Asad’s ploy to make the struggle a binary one between them, obviously hoping for a different outcome.)