Counter-terrorism forces have continued to have success in operations against the Islamic State leadership, killing two ‘caliphs’ and several high ranking officials within a matter of months in Iraq and Syria.
The Lake Chad province of the group has also remained under pressure.
They have pursued a policy of keeping what is known about their leaders to a minimal level.
But the killings raise questions over this key part of Islamic State’s strategy.
The U.S central command on Dec. 11 announced the killing of two ISIS officials in a helicopter raid conducted in eastern Syria. “The United States remains committed to countering the global threat from ISIS in partnership with local forces,” the Command said.
This comes on the heels of confirmation of the death of Islamic State Leader Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi by the United States Central Command in November. This was confirmed just hours after the group had announced his death and the identity of a new leader, Abu al-Hussain al-Hussaini al-Qurashi.
The command, in a statement, said he died in mid-October in an operation conducted by the Free Syrian Army in Dar’a province in southwestern Syria. The circumstance of his death is similar to ISIS statement, which stated that he was killed while fighting.
“Abu al-Hassan was killed in a stand-off in the town of Jassem, in Daraa, on Oct. 15, when he or fellow ISIS members reportedly detonated suicide vests after their compound was surrounded” reports Charles Lister a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
The former rebel fighters were reportedly unsure of the identity of those killed. They had been backed by the U.S. between 2013 and 2017, and reached out to their contacts for help in confirming.
Thereafter, “the U.S. acquired DNA samples from the bodies and evidence was collected from the compound”. Lister also says that the confirmation of his identity suggests “he likely spent time in U.S. custody in the past — presumably during the war in Iraq, from 2003 to 2010”.
Despite staying off the radar, Abu al-Hasan is the second ISIS leader to be killed this year. His predecessor, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi’s was killed in February after detonating explosives during a raid by U.S. special forces in Idlib, northwest Syria.
Mina al-Lami, who leads BBC Monitoring’s jihadist media team, noted in a tweet that “both “caliphs” were killed before ever being seen or heard through IS media during their tenures as leaders”. Keeping leaders anonymous is a tactic instigated in order to frustrate detection by counter-terrorism forces, an aim they failed to achieve in both cases.
It also creates operational and spiritual problems for the terror group.
Al-Lami highlights that it’s a big problem for the group’s credibility and image. She also added “If followers don’t know the true identity of the leader, how can they be sure he is eligible to fill the post of caliph, anti-IS jihadists argue”.
It is possible this could give away the upper hand to anti-IS jihadists in the doctrinal war between organisations.
In any case, the caution over identifying the leader is not preventing security forces and allied non-state forces from continuing the chase. This could have a ripple effect of disrupting operations and creating popular leaders capable of rallying the group and encouraging recruitment.
In September, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan revealed that security forces had arrested a senior ISIS figure in an operation carried out by police and the country’s intelligence agency.
In July, U.S. President Joe Biden announced the US carried out an airstrike against one of the top leaders of ISIS, Maher al Agal. “His death in Syria takes a key terrorist off the field and significantly degrades the ability of ISIS to plan, resource, and conduct their operations in the region,” the statement said.
Last year, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi claimed that security forces captured a high-ranking leader of the group in an international operation. The high-ranking figure was said to have served as deputy to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The infamous al-Baghdadi died in 2019 during a special operations raid in northwest Syria. He had transformed the terror group and came to prominence in 2014 when he announced the creation of a “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq.
ISIS has remained a global threat despite losing territories and capabilities. Its franchise, especially the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), have become more prominent, controlling large swaths of ungoverned land in the Sahel and Lake Chad.
Counter-terrorism effort in Lake Chad
In Lake Chad, the ISWAP has come under intense pressure from the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), with soldiers backed by air support making deep incursions. These operations also occurred concurrently with operations by Nigeria’s counterinsurgency forces in the northeast.
ISWAP has incurred significant losses as a result of these offensive operations enabled by new capabilities, especially for the Nigerian military, including armed drones and mine-resistant vehicles. The group has had to change tactics due to the impact of airstrikes.
The group leadership has stayed away from the public, likely replicating the security precaution of the global ISIS group. It’s also a distinction the group has had with the parent faction, Boko Haram, headed by the very-visible Abubakar Shekau.
The ISWAP operation against Shekau that ended in his death and the conquest of the Boko Haram stronghold of Sambisa was characterised by the unusual visibility of Abu Musab Albarnawi (Habib Muhammad Yusuf) afterwards. The normally taciturn acting leader of the province went on a communication campaign, disseminating audio recordings of his explanations and justification, in the form of a preaching and exegesis, of why they had decided to act against Shekau. These recordings were circulated with the purpose of rallying the rank and file.
Abu Musab Albarnawi then receded back into the shadows. The current leadership of the group has remained elusive, and the status of Abu Musab has been an issue of debate. Nigerian officials have claimed he is dead, but no confirmation has been issued.
HumAngle understands his designation and role have been elevated within the ISIS structure. It appears for this part of the Islamic State, the strategy of being elusive is still effective.
But an attempt by ISWAP to integrate former Boko Haram fighters and areas of influence has suffered setbacks as the Nigerian government and military provided suitable conditions that have enabled the defection of thousands of fighters and their families. Some fighters have chosen to join ISWAP, others to mount a resistance against the group.
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