Targeting leadership in the war against ISIS

Tuesday، October 04، 2016
Targeting leadership in the war against ISIS

The announcement by the US Department of Defense of the killing of a prominent ISIS leader, Abu Mohamed Al-Adnani who was the group’s promotion and recruitment officer on August 30, 2016. This raised a number of questions about the repercussions of targeting leadership of terrorist groups and whether this could impact the groups cohesion due to the leader’s role and influence. These questions have gained particular importance in light of the increased targeting of such leaders recently. This particular targeting of leaders appears to have become one of the main mechanisms followed by the members of the allied forces participating in the war on terror, aiming to inflict the greatest amount of damage to terrorist groups, especially ISIS.

Rising Trend

Recently, there has been a noticeable increase in targeting the leaders of prominent terrorist organizations in the region. This is especially true of leaders of ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. Leaders of terrorist groups have been targeted by military strikes from the international coalition led by the US and other world powers.

Before the killing of Abu-Mohamed Al-Adnani, other leaders were also directly targeted. These include Abdelrahman Al-Kadouli (March 25, 2016), who the US considered the number two man in ISIS, Abu-Al-Haija’ al-Tunisi, an ISIS leader killed in an American drone strike near Raqqa on March 31, 2016,as well as ISIS leader in Al-Anbar in Iraq Wahib Ahmed Al-Fahdawi, killed on May 6, 2016, in an airstrike by the international coalition – the Pentagon had described him as the military leader of Al-Anbar and a former Al-Qaeda member – and Amr Al-Chichani, nicknamed ISIS’s minister of war, who was killed near Mosul on July 13, 2016.

This increase in direct targeting of ISIS leaders has led Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook to say that “It is dangerous to be an ISIL leader in Iraq and Syria these days and for good reason.” Besides ISIS, the leaders of other terrorist groups, such as Jabhat Fath Al-Sham (previously Jabhat Al-Nusra) have also been targeted. On April 3, 2016, it was announced that the group’s spokesman Abu-Firas A-Souri, was killed in the bombing of a training camp in Idlib.

An American drone strike also resulted in the death of prominent Al-Qaeda in Yemen leader Jalal Bileidi, known as Abu-Hamza, in February of 2016. Other world powers have also participated in such missions, such as Italy’s airstrike on the Libyan city of Sirt in the beginning of June, 2016, which led to the death of Mirghhani Badawi Al-Bashir, known as Abu-Al-Hareth, one of ISIS’s most prominent leaders in Libya.

All of these above missions offer a clear indication that the powers involved in the war on terror now recognize the importance of individual leaders within terrorist organizations, as well as the effects of their absence on the cohesion of these groups and their ability to continue to exist. Therefore, these powers have started targeting these leaders to take them out in a way that would weaken the terrorist organizations and push them to divide or even disintegrate altogether.

Possible Repercussions

Multiple indicators show that the targeting of high-profile leaders within terrorist organizations greatly affects these organizations. This is especially true at a time when terrorist organizations are the subject of military missions from the international coalition and other forces. The most prominent results from the targeting of leaders include:

1. Decline in foreign terrorist attacks: Attacks by terrorist groups outside their direct spheres of influence – especially attacks by ISIS – depend strongly on the presence of leaders with deep organizational and mission expertise for planning. With that in mind, the targeting of specific leaders should lead to a decline in foreign attacks, especially in Europe. This is especially true with the death of Abu-Muhamed Al-Adnani, nicknamed ISIS’s foreign mission engineer. This does not, however, remove the risk of so-called lone-wolf individual attacks.

2. Increase in random attacks: Second tier members who can replace targeted leaders usually lack the experience of their predecessors. This will clearly reflect on the level of missions these new leaders can prepare for and carry out going forward. Due to the lack of experience, these attacks will most likely be of the random kind to enable the new leaders to prove their ability to take on main missions within the terrorist groups. As random attacks, they will most likely not have as big an impact as previous attacks by these groups.

There is no doubt that these groups will be under a lot pressure going forward. This is because the attacks by the international coalition and other groups do not leave a lot of room for these groups to carry out large missions in response. This does not, however, mean that some of these groups continue to have the relative ability to withstand the pressure and restraints they are currently under. 

3. Organizational dysfunction: The main leaders of terrorist organizations usually have the support of various members and factions due to their hierarchical status. This is known in terrorist group literature as “the superiority of jihad elders.” Meanwhile, young members promoted to fill the vacancies left behind by these leaders lack organizational skills and are usually the same age as many of the members, leading to divisions about the authority of these new leaders who generally lack internal consensus. This absence of consensus usually leads to a state of organizational dysfunction, later reflected on the groups’ performance, cohesion, and effectiveness.

4. Intellectual decline: Targeting intellectual leaders within terrorist groups often leads to intellectual decline, especially when facing competing terrorist groups. This is due to the group losing leaders who defend it, keep it cohesive, and help attract new members.

5. Imbalance among terrorist groups: Targeting high-profile leaders in terrorist groups has a direct effect on the power balance between the various groups, which is a crucial factor in their interactions. Indicators show that the targeting of a large number of ISIS leaders will lead to a shift in the power balance towards Al-Qaeda, ISIS’s traditional rival seeking to put themselves back on the map, and which has seen a decline as ISIS has become more prominent in recent years.

All of this is not to say that targeting the leaders of terrorist groups has led to their complete collapse. ISIS, for example, still has the ability to maintain its activities in Iraq and Syria, despite the pressure it is under whether thanks to losing control of major regions recently or the targeting of its military and organizational leadership.

It may be worth mentioning that terrorist groups are now aware of the importance of strengthening and supporting its leaders and members to handle the absence of their main leadership tiers. This means that this new direction that focuses on targeting the main leaders of terrorist groups may affect their existence and cohesion in the long term by affecting their ability to recruit new members to replace the vast losses incurred by military strikes. This may be a definitive way to weaken and eventually overcome these groups in the future.

Keywords: TerrorismIraqISISSecurity StudiesSyriaUS Department of Defense