Does the removal of top jihadists weaken ISIL?

Hassan Hassan comments on the killing of many of the world's prominent jihadists in the past month in Syria

Abu Firas Al Suri was one of the many jihadists who were killed over the past month in Syria. AFP
Powered by automated translation

Over the past month, the United States has eliminated 12 of the world’s most notorious jihadists operating within different organisations inside Syria. Remarkably, the militants were veterans of most of the jihadi wars since the 1980s, from Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria, Chechnya and Iraq. The targeting of that many high-profile operatives in different parts of the country and in such a short period of time, shows just how Syria has become a crucible for jihadi movements over the past five years.

Most recently, two prominent Egyptian militants were killed when their car was hit by US air strikes in Idlib. One of them, Refai Taha Al Masri, was a founder of Gamaa Al Islamiyyah, an Egyptian extremist group that was accused of the 1997 Luxor massacre in which nearly 60 foreign tourists were shot down or hacked to death.

The second one, Abu Omar Al Masri, is a veteran of the “Chechen jihad” and was close to Thamir Saleh Abdullah, commonly known as Emir Khattab. He travelled to Syria along with old Chechen comrades Muslim Abu Al Walid, Saifullah and Salaheddin.

According to Khaled Al Qaysi, an Iraqi expert on Islamist groups, Refai had arrived in Syria just a few days before his demise, in a bid to patch up differences between commanders of Jabhat Al Nusra and help unify factional jihadi divisions in Syria.

Disputes along national lines have long been a source of disunity among extremist groups in the country – notably involving Jordanian commanders in the case of Jabhat Al Nusra – who are seen by many as controlling the group, especially in southern Syria.

Jabhat Al Nusra’s spokesman, Abu Firas Al Suri, was also killed in an air raid on March 4.

Abu Firas, a Syrian from Madaya near Damascus, had greatly contributed to the jihadi squabble after he made a series of statements attacking those within Ahrar Al Sham and Jabhat Al Nusra who were arguing for the latter to break away from Al Qaeda. Abu Firas saw the attempt as instigated by regional countries to further divide the group, and his statements were widely seen as no different from ISIL’s views that apostatised groups or individuals who cooperate with symbols of the regional geopolitical order.

The US also announced the killing of Abu Omar Al Shishani on March 14, although the news is not confirmed. Abu Omar was the most publicly notable foreign commander within ISIL, who spearheaded many of the battles in eastern Syria after he joined the group in 2014. Abu Atheer Al Absi, a man known for his ultra-extremist views even among other extremists jailed at the Sednaya prison before the Syrian uprising. He was released in 2011 along with hundreds of others like him, and started an independent group that later joined ISIL in 2013. He was one of the key commanders to help ISIL’s leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi in late 2012 in his attempt to push aside Jabhat Al Nusra’s leader, Abu Muhammed Al Jolani, and expand its rule into Syria.

Among the dozen reported killings, the most important one is arguably of Abd Al Rahman Mustafa Al Qaduli, better known by noms de guerre such as Abu Alaa Al Afri, Abu Ali Al Anbari and Haji Iman. His death had been announced at least four times by Iraqi authorities and twice by the Americans, but this time appears more credible since some ISIL supporters began to eulogise him on social media. The Pentagon announced his killing on March 25.

Little was known about Al Afri and much of the information about him turned out to be inaccurate. Security experts had mistakenly identified him as a former officer with the regime of Saddam Hussain, but he had been a jihadi activist since the 1980s inside Iraq. From Tal Afar near the city of Mosul, he travelled to Afghanistan in 1998 and later pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2004.

He had served as the supreme Sharia official of the organisation, in its different incarnations, since 2004.

Over the past few years, he became the emir of the so-called wilayat, or province, and oversaw the security apparatus since 2014. There were rumours he visited Libya last year. Abu Ali Al Anbari, one of his noms de guerre, was also mistakenly thought to be a separate person.

Since then, he had been an – if not the – instrumental person in shaping the ideology of ISIL as we know it today. He details in nearly 40 lectures given to high clerics working for his group the core extremist views that ISIL holds, from rejection of modern democratic norms and the demolition of Sufi and Shia places of worship to the prohibition of praying behind an imam, anywhere in the world, who does not adhere to its strict understanding of Islam. His talks offer a fascinating new window into how the group rationalises extremist views unacceptable even to fellow jihadists.

Operationally, organisations such as Al Qaeda and ISIL have adapted over the years to survive the targeting of their leaders. Most members and leaders are effectively expendable and the group can exist without them.

So the high-level killings over the past month may not have a significant impact on the battlefield. They might, however, leave a dent on the changing ideological outlook, particularly because the targets included religious giants in this field.

Hassan Hassan is a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror

On Twitter: @hxhassan