international analysis and commentary

Leadership elimination and the challenge of degrading the Islamic State


Omar al-Shishani was one of the few widely known leaders of the Islamic State. A striking appearance with his long, reddish beard, pale skin and morose demeanor, he had a reputation for being a fierce and battle-hardened jihadi. Drawing on years of experience fighting the Russians in Chechnya, Al-Shishani made a substantial contribution to the military campaigns of the Islamic State. But now he is dead.

The details remain murky after the Islamic State announced in mid-July that he had been killed in a US airstrike in Shirqat, an Iraqi town south of Mosul. And he is far from being the only one in the Islamic State leadership to die at the hands of the coalition’s armed forces. Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, the Islamic State –spokesperson, who was killed in late August, is only the most recent addition to an already impressive list that might one day include Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself. In all likelihood, the reports of the Caliph’s death are – to put it in Twainian terms – greatly exaggerated, but the net around him is tightening, as he appears to have been wounded in a recent airstrike in northern Iraq.

On the one hand, there are reasons to be skeptical about the effectiveness of the efforts to kill the Islamic State leadership. Jihadist groups, and terrorist groups in general, are usually quite resilient in the face of leadership elimination. A case in point is Al-Shabaab, the Somali jihadist group that remained unfazed by the death of its leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, in September 2014. Rather than fragment or disintegrate, Al-Shabaab went on to commit deadly attacks. Last January the group even had the audacity to chase African Union forces from a military base in the Somali-Kenyan border town of El-Adde. Moreover, the leaders of the Islamic State consciously tried to avoid dependence on individual leaders. Military commanders have the autonomy to wage their campaigns in the way they see fit, and the group has refrained from creating a leadership cult around Al-Baghdadi, who rarely appears in public and plays no crucial role in his organization’s propaganda.

At the same time, the expertise of the Islamic State’s leadership is one of the things that make their organization such a formidable threat. The group is largely run by former high-ranking army and intelligence officers from the Saddam Hussein regime, and their skills and experience, together with the bloodlust and fighting spirit of the rank-and-file, account for the Islamic State’s meteoric rise in 2014. People with such expertise are not easily replaced, so one could indeed expect the organization to suffer from airstrikes and special forces operations against the leadership.

Also, the liquidations are forcing Al-Baghdadi to rely on local commanders who, unlike the foreign leaders who were previously at the helm, are loyal to their regional affiliates and allies rather than to the Caliph. This might, first, lead to fissures between the locally oriented leaders and those who are adamant to take the fight to enemy territory. Second, the growing prominence of local leaders could further dent the strained relations between foreign and local fighters. There have been many reports of violent clashes between local and foreign fighters, primarily about the preferential treatment the foreigners receive within ISIS, but also about the brutality they mete out to local citizens. With local leaders on the rise, the tolerance of local fighters for the antics of their foreign brothers in arms may decrease, which will further deepen the rift.

Finally, the leadership liquidations undermine the group’s aura of invincibility. Much of the Islamic State’s appeal to potential recruits in the US and Europe depends on its ability to pitch itself as the party that is gloriously defeating the enemies of the true Islam. With Islamic State leaders being taken out one after the other, this narrative is clearly losing its credibility.

But while one can make the case, going by what we know about the Islamic State, that the elimination of the group’s leadership will at least have some effect, few observers are in a position to adequately assess whether these effects are occurring in practice. What we can be more sure of, is that the high casualty rates among the Islamic State’s leadership is, if not a cause, then at least a symptom of the group’s degradation. In order to grasp this point, we should take into account how the US gets the intelligence it needs to go after the Islamic State leadership.

As Al-Baghdadi and his men are yielding terrain to the Kurds and other forces on the ground in Iraq,  many of their computers, cell phones and hard drives are falling into the hands of their enemies, who lose little time in exploiting the crucial intelligence. In recent months, both Kurdish and US forces have conducted raids that gained them several terabytes of digital information about the Islamic State’s inner workings. As the frequency of such findings increases, so will the accuracy of the intelligence estimates regarding the Islamic State leadership. Other major sources of information include defectors and captured fighters. With the Islamic State retreating more than ever, both the numbers of defectors and the numbers of captured fighters are increasing. And some of them, as the expression goes, sing like canaries. This way, one successful raid can lead to another, pushing the Islamic State into a downward spiral from which it will be hard to escape.

Thus, what this ability to target the Islamic State leadership shows, is that the US has finally found a formula to fight jihadist insurgencies in Iraq. Roughly speaking, the US has three options, and it has tried all three of them in the last decade. First, it can go all in, as it did during the famous “surge” of 2007. President Bush increased the number of American troops in Iraq to support the tribal resistance against Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the group that would later become the Islamic State. The violence declined markedly, but the massive military presence became politically and financially unsustainable, so President Obama decided to apply the second option: doing nothing. The problem with this approach was that the withdrawal of US troops left the field wide open for the jihadists, who had been lying in wait. Moreover, the absence of his American allies forced then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to rely more heavily on his Shia allies, which led to crackdowns and open discrimination against the Iraqi Sunnis. This only deepened the Shia-Sunni divide that gave the Islamic State the opportunity to win the backing of the Sunni part of the population.

To his credit, President Obama eventually found a third option, a middle ground between the surge and the total abandonment of Iraq. It is true that the airstrikes, the deployment of special forces and cooperation with Kurdish fighters and the Iraqi army will do little to change the political setting  which allowed the Islamic State to emerge in the first place. Also, removing the Islamic State from the scene constitutes something of a gamble: if the Iran-backed militias fill the void left behind by the jihadists, new sectarian conflicts in Iraq are likely, and other terrorist groups may emerge as the champions of the Iraqi Sunnis.

For the narrowly defined goal of defeating the Islamic State, however, the current approach is probably the way to go. In any case, it is better than doing everything, and it is certainly better than doing nothing.