US and Russia both claim credit for death of ISIL spokesman

US officials dismissed Moscow's claim as “a joke”

This undated image posted online on August 31, 2016, by ISIL supporters shows Abu Mohamed Al Adnani. Via AP
Powered by automated translation

BEIRUT // Both the United States and Russia claimed credit on Wednesday for the death of ISIL spokesman and top strategist Abu Mohamed Al Adnani.

Al Adnani was the extremist group’s propaganda chief, top recruiter and the reported mastermind of a string of ISIL-claimed attacks in the West.

In Washington, the Pentagon said US-led coalition forces had targeted him in an air strike on Syria’s Aleppo province on Tuesday but did not immediately confirm his death.

Russia’s military, however, said one of its air strikes had killed Al Adnani in a bombing raid on Tuesday that left up to 40 ISIL fighters dead – a claim dismissed by US officials as “a joke”.

Regardless of who was responsible, analysts say his death will be a major bow to ISIL, which has suffered a series of setbacks this year including territorial losses in Syria and Iraq and the killings of other top figures.

Al Adnani was “the most viscerally aggressive ISIS leader in the public eye”, said Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

“Without his explosive voice, ISIS may find it hard to inspire the intense levels of violence that it has managed to inspire of late.”

Al Adnani, a Syrian born in 1977, was one of ISIL’s most recognised leaders. He was at the heart of a sophisticated propaganda and recruitment machine that produced slick videos and sustained a huge social media presence.

He was also reported to have been involved in organising a series of high-profile ISIL attacks abroad that killed hundreds, including in Paris, Brussels and Istanbul.

The ISIL-affiliated Amaq news agency announced Al Adnani’s death late on Tuesday, saying he “was martyred while surveying operations to repel the military campaigns against Aleppo” province in northern Syria.

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said US-led coalition forces had “conducted a precision strike” targeting Al Adnani near the ISIL-held town of Al Bab in Aleppo.

“We are still assessing the results of the strike but Adnani’s removal from the battlefield would mark another significant blow to ISIL,” he said.

The US-led coalition began air strikes against ISIL in mid-2014, a few weeks after the group seized control of large parts of Syria and Iraq.

Washington has vowed to “systematically eliminate” senior ISIL leaders and has put a US$10 million (Dh36.7m) bounty on the head of ISIL’s elusive leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.

Both ISIL’s second-in-command Abd ar-Rahman Mustafa Al Qaduli and its top military commander, Omar Al Shishani, have been killed in reported US strikes since March.

“Adnani’s killing is a signal that IS can no longer protect its most senior leaders,” said Baghdad-based extremist expert Hisham Al Hashimi.

He said it was clear that US intelligence had infiltrated top levels of ISIL and was increasingly aware of the movements of senior figures.

“I think the United States are very close to killing Baghdadi the next time.”

Russia started its own air war in Syria last September, backing its ally president Bashar Al Assad.

The Russian defence ministry said on Wednesday that an Su-34 warplane had struck a group of extremists near the village of Um Hosh in Aleppo province.

“According to information confirmed through several intelligence channels, field commander Abu Mohamed Al Adnani was among those killed,” it said.

It was the first time that Moscow has claimed to have killed a top-ranking ISIL leader.

But a US defence official dismissed the remarks.

“That’s a joke,” the official said. “It would be funny if not for the character of the campaign the Russians have undertaken in Syria.”

Another US official said the strike was carried out by a Predator drone that fired a Hellfire missile at a car in which Al Adnani was believed to have been travelling.

Mr Lister said ISIL’s announcement of Al Adnani’s death had described him as Qurayshi – referring to Prophet Mohammed’s tribe – in an indication of his importance.

The use of the term “would seem to suggest ISIS may have been preparing him to be Baghdadi’s successor as overall leader,” Mr Lister said.

Al Adnani, from the western Syrian province of Idlib, joined the group in Iraq where he served under the late local Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab Al Zarqawi.

He was a founding member of ISIL, which evolved from Al Qaeda in Iraq to become the pre-eminent global extremist movement.

It was Al Adnani who, in a June 2014 audio recording, declared ISIL’s establishment of a “caliphate” straddling Syria and Iraq, and Al Baghdadi as the “leader of Muslims everywhere”.

* Agence France-Presse