A new Qaeda affiliate in Syria has claimed responsibility for a March 11 double bomb attack targeting Shi'ite pilgrims in Damascus that killed at least 40 Iraqis and wounded 120 more. Footage broadcast by Syrian state TV showed two buses with their windows blown out, the surroundings splattered with blood and littered with lost shoes and clothing. The attack took place near Bab al-Saghir cemetery, named for one of the seven gates of the Old City of Damascus. The pilgrims had arrived to pray at the cemetery after visiting the Sayeda Zeinab shrine outside Damascus, where the grand-daughter of the Prophet Mohammad is said to be buried. In a statement claiming responsibility, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Liberation of the Levant Organization) said the attack was "a message to Iran" over its support for the Bashar Assad regime. The group is identified as a breakaway faction of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the former Nusra Front) that has maintained ties with al-Qaeda. (BBC News, Reuters)
Nusra Front supposedly broke ties with al-Qaeda when it changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham last year. It is unclear to what degree Hayat Tahrir al-Sham remains affiliated with ex-Nusra, or to what degree the supposed break with al-Qaeda was real.
Meanwhile, it has been pointed out that Iran-backed Shi'ite militias, including some made up of Iraqis, are active in support of the Assad regime, and are accused of "sectarian cleansing" against Sunnis. Some commentators on Twitter have charged that the pilgrims targeted in the attack were actually militiamen.