Last night, Steve Warren, the American colonel who is the spokesman for the international campaign against the Islamic State (IS), the U.S.-led Operation INHERENT RESOLVE, announced that between December 7 and December 27, ten IS “leaders” had been killed. Col. Warren adumbrated the positions of the IS leaders, allowing the conclusion that five had been part of IS’s external operations wing, which conducts international terrorism, and five were part of IS’s internal operations, i.e. part of the military operations and security infrastructure that helps IS maintain and expand its statelet in Syria and Iraq. Col. Warren presented this as an important blow to IS that had assisted in inflicting the recent territorial losses on IS. There is reason for scepticism on these points.
- Khalil Ahmad Ali al-Wais (Abu Wadha): An ISIS emir in Kirkuk, killed near Hawija on Dec. 7.
- Abu Anas: An ISIS bomb cell facilitator for the networks in Kirkuk, killed near Kirkuk on Dec. 8.
- Mithaq Najam: An IS deputy emir in Kirkuk, who oversaw command and training to help IS maintain the province, was killed near Hawija on Dec. 9.
- Yunis Khalash (Abu Jawdat): An IS deputy financial emir, killed near Mosul on Dec. 9.
- Akram Muhammad Sayeed Faris (Akram A’abu): An IS commander and executioner, killed near Tal Afar on Dec. 12.
- Rawand Dishlan Taher: An IS external operations facilitator, a “trusted” IS member who “assisted with command and control and handling and transferring money and equipment,” killed near ar-Raqqa on Dec. 7
- Siful Haq Sujan: An IS external operations planner, a British-educated computer systems engineer from Bangladesh, a hacker who helped IS’s counter-surveillance program and assisted in the building of weapons, killed near ar-Raqqa on Dec. 10
- Charaffe al-Mouadan (a.k.a. Souleymane a.k.a Abu Sulayman al-Firansi): An IS external operations facilitator engaged in “planning additional attacks against the West”. Al-Mouadan had a direct link to Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian of Moroccan origin who led the cell who carried out the November 13 Paris attack before he was killed five days later. Al-Mouadan, 27, a French citizen, was killed on Dec. 24.
- Abdul Qader Hakim: An IS external operations facilitator—a “forgery specialist”—whom Warren said also had links to the Paris attack network, killed in Mosul on Dec. 26.
- Tashin al-Hayali: An IS external operations facilitator, killed near Mosul on Dec. 27
Col. Warren specifically linked the loss of this ostensible-leadership cadre to the ability of forces officially under the command of the Iraqi government to take back Ramadi city centre from IS. The anti-IS gains in Ramadi were in “part … attributable to the fact that the organization is losing its leadership,” Warren said. This contention is rather hard to sustain, however, first because IS’s losses in Ramadi are by no means complete and even if they were would only be the reversal of a severe loss sustained by the anti-IS Coalition at the periphery of IS’s statelet, and second because “leaders” does not seem quite the right word for these IS officials.
A lot of the media attention was given to al-Mouadan, and secondarily Hakim because they were part of the IS cell that carried out the massacre in Paris in November. Al-Mouadan not only had a direct link to Abaaoud, but was a friend of Samy Amimour, one of the three gunmen-cum-suicide-killers who murdered ninety people at the Bataclan concert hall. Al-Moudan also had links to Samir Bouabout, another French radical, who was indicted with al-Mouadan and Abaaoud in 2012. The focus on this by the West is understandable in the aftermath of Paris: retributive and perhaps even preventive—since al-Mouadan was planning further attacks—justice has been done. But the loss of these two men—pending further developments—shows little indication of being a severe blow to IS.
While IS’s external operations division has a lesser priority than the maintenance of the caliphate, it is two of its slain officials who should have the focus here: Taher and Sujan. Both Taher and Sujan were, not coincidentally, based in Syria, where, despite the U.S.-led Coalition continuing to weight its campaign to Iraq, IS has its centre of gravity. Taher, of Iraqi Kurdish origins and Danish citizenship, also known as Abu Muhammad al-Kurdi and Abu Mariam al-Kurdistani, appears to have had some command responsibility over foreign operations and to oversee some important IS logistics, including for the November Paris attacks. Sujan is presumably responsible for some of IS’s reportedly rather successful resistance to Western signals intelligence capabilities.
The loss of Abu Anas might deprive IS of some localized specialist skill in Kirkuk, but otherwise it is clear that the Coalition has neutralized mostly mid-level officials, who will be quickly replaced. IS’s bureaucratic obsessiveness is infamous and this is a reflection of its institutional nature; it does not work by individuals. A good example is Samir al-Khlifawi (Haji Bakr), the man who orchestrated IS’s expansion into Syria, set up the proto-state in 2013, and planned the IS offensive into Iraq in 2014. What is notable is that al-Khlifawi was killed in January 2014—and Mosul fell in June anyway.
There is presumably a point at which so many IS leaders are killed so quickly that it would strategically damage the organization, such as the near-decapitation in 2010. But we are nowhere near that point and neither the elimination of these ten IS “leaders” nor events in Ramadi are as helpful or as hopeful to the cause of destroying the Islamic State as they have been presented.
UPDATE: My thoughts on this in audio format on BBC Radio Five Live (plus Russia’s role in the Levant and Mesopotamia).