The Islamic State reported the death of its chief spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, Tuesday, potentially signaling the loss of a senior militant who has steered the group’s campaign to bring violent operations to the West.
If confirmed, Adnani’s death would damage the Islamic State in two areas that have made the terror organization particularly dangerous: its sophisticated use of social media to reach a global audience, and its willingness to employ the crudest forms of violence in scattered plots outside Iraq and Syria.
It would be a significant blow at a time when the group is already fending off attacks from Western-backed forces on the ground and a two-year air campaign that has deprived it of territory and resources.
In a tweet, Amaq news agency, the Islamic State’s media arm, said Adnani had been killed while inspecting troops in Aleppo. It did not say when, where or how Adnani died.
In a longer statement posted on Telegram, Amaq boasted of the group’s resilience despite Adnani’s death. “The blood of the sheikhs will only make it more firm on the path of jihad and determination to take revenge and assault,” Amaq said, according to a statement from SITE Intelligence group.
Adnani’s death has been rumored several times before. U.S. officials could not immediately confirm the report of his death, but a senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to comment on an evolving situation, said aircraft belonging to the U.S.-led coalition had targeted a “senior leader” from the Islamic State in al-Bab, a city in northern Aleppo province, yesterday. It was not clear whether that leader was Adnani.
While U.S. war planes continue their long air war over Syria, recent strikes have been focused in areas in eastern and far northern Syria, where allied Syrian forces are battling the militants and where American aircraft are less likely to overlap with Russian and Syrian warplanes, which are also conducting strikes across Syria. In recent weeks, Russian and Syrian planes have intensified their activities over Aleppo, gripped by intense fighting as government-backed forces and rebels battle for control of the city.
Adnan, a Syrian national born Taha Sobhi Falaha, was among a core group of Islamic State operatives who could claim direct ties to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian extremist who launched the organization then known as al-Qaida in Iraq after the U.S. invasion of 2003.
“He was their most prolific and public spokesman,” said Will McCants, a former State Department official and expert on the Islamic State. “The war of words between al-Qaida and ISIS, the justification for war on the west — that was all Adnani’s doing.”
Like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, Adnani is believed to have been held in U.S. military custody in Iraq about a decade ago, only to be released and help the organization survive near-extinction to re-emerge later as the Islamic State.
Because of his Syrian nationality, al-Qaida relied on Adnani to help the organization establish a foothold in Syria. But later Adnani helped orchestrate the Iraq-base affiliate’s split from al-Qaida, a rupture that led to the formation of the Islamic State and its rapid emergence as a terror group with more followers and violent capacity than its parent organization had amassed in years.
In statements announcing Adnani’s death, the Islamic State described him as a descendant of the tribe and family of the Prophet Mohammed, a clue that Adnani was possibly being groomed as a replacement for Baghdadi if the ISIS leader were to be killed, McCants said.