More ISIS leaders assassinated but will that cripple the caliphate?
BEIRUT - The United States says its targeted air strikes have killed at least three senior Islamic State (ISIS) leaders, including Abu Salah, a 42-year-old Iraqi identified as finance minister of the self-proclaimed caliphate.
The Pentagon’s December 10th announcement named the other two as Abu Maryam, an enforcer and head of ISIS extortion networks; and Abu Rahman al-Tunisi, who allegedly coordinated weapons deliveries.
US Army Colonel Steve Warren, the US military spokesman in Baghdad, said on December 29th that ten leading figures in ISIS’s external operations arm had been killed in air strikes over the previous month, including two men linked to the November 13th attacks in Paris in which 130 people were killed.
In the last year, the US-led air campaign against ISIS is believed to have killed more than 20 of the 43 top-ranking leaders of ISIS, including several deputies of the self-proclaimed caliph, an Iraqi known by the nom de guerre of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Since the US launched a programme to kill jihadist and Taliban commanders in 2004, its forces have assassinated more than 110 leading figures in al-Qaeda and its offshoots, including ISIS. However, the jihadist wars go on.
Iraq-based US Special Forces helicoptered into an ISIS base near the Deir ez-Zor oilfields in north-eastern Syria on May 15th and killed mid-ranking ISIS leader Abu Sayyaf, an important figure in black market oil smuggling. They also seized important data on the group’s economic assets and leadership.
Abu Sayyaf — an Iraqi whose real name was Nabil Sadiq Abu Saleh al-Jabouri — was reportedly close to Baghdadi’s key deputy, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani. Many recent air strikes appear to have stemmed from the intelligence gleaned from the Abu Sayyaf raid.
In the current phase of their battle against ISIS, US forces killed one of Baghdadi’s top commanders, Fadhil Ahmad al-Hayali, aka Hajji Mutazz, in an air strike on August 18th near Mosul, seized by ISIS in June 2014. He died alongside Abd al Basit, commander of ISIS military operations in Iraq.
Hayali was a former lieutenant colonel in Saddam Hussein’s intelligence service who joined ISIS’s predecessor organisation, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). He and other Ba’athist officers gravitated towards ISIS and, with their intimate knowledge of military and intelligence affairs, became the core of its command echelon.
But, at the end of the day, it is evident that ISIS is a resilient organisation that has survived the loss of many of its chieftains. Its attacks in Paris and across the Arab world have shown that it will fight fire with fire and has the capability to project force internationally.
AQI’s leader, the bloodthirsty Jordanian known as Abu Musab al- Zarqawi, was killed in a US air strike in Iraq in June 2006 but that did not stop the insurgency. “ISIS and its predecessors have survived decapitation strikes in the past,” observed Thomas Joscelyn of the Long War Journal, which monitors Islamic terrorism.
“Like other insurgency organisations that use terrorism as a tactic to achieve their goals, ISIS has a deep bench of middle managers who’re capable of filling in for leaders taken out by the US and its allies.
“Their front organisation, the Islamic State of Iraq, was severely degraded by the leadership attrition campaign… but the group quickly rebounded once the last American forces were withdrawn from Iraq at the end of 2011.”