US: Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s ‘close associate’ killed in special operations raid

The US military announced today that Abdurakhmon Uzbeki, a senior Islamic State operative and “close associate” of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, was killed during a special forces raid on April 6. The operation was carried out near the city of Mayadin in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor.

The Islamic State has long battled forces loyal to Bashar al Assad’s regime in the city of Deir Ezzor and the surrounding area. The US also frequently carries out airstrikes against the jihadists’ fighting positions and oil infrastructure in the province, but raids involving ground forces are rare.

Uzbeki “facilitated the movement of ISIS foreign terror fighters and funds,” according to a statement issued by the US military. He “played a key role” in the group’s “external terror attack plotting.”

US intelligence officials have concluded that Uzbeki “facilitated the high profile attack” on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul, Turkey this past New Year’s Eve. The massacre left 39 people dead and dozens more wounded.

The Kurdistan Region Security Council (KRSC), which helps coordinate coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State, has released a grainy photo purportedly showing Uzbeki. The picture can be seen on the right. On its Twitter feed, the KRSC identified Uzbeki as Gayratzon Uzimof, noting that he was also known as Abdulrahman Uzbeki, which is a different phonetic spelling of the nom de guerre used by US officials. The KRSC said that its counterterrorism department had “confirmed” Uzbeki’s death on April 12, adding that he was in charge of the self-declared caliphate’s “financial and logistical affairs,” including the “movement of fighters.”

Air Force Col. John Thomas, a spokesman for US Central Command (CENTCOM), told the press that Uzbeki “was known to interact with [Baghdadi] in various ways over time.”

“We’ve clearly linked him with the Istanbul attack,” Thomas added, according to Military.com.

There was some initial confusion over the identity and ethnicity of the gunman who opened fire at the Reina nightclub.

But the Turkish government arrested an Uzbek man, Abdulkadir Masharipov, at an apartment in Istanbul on Jan. 16. Istanbul Governor Vasip Sahin said that Masharipov “is a 34-year-old Uzbek who speaks four foreign languages” (Arabic, Chinese, Russian, and Turkish), according to BBC News. Sahin added that Masharipov was “very well trained.” The Turkish government also released a video Masharipov had recorded of himself in Istanbul’s Taksim Square.

Early accounts said that Masharipov learned his deadly skillset while fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some Uzbek jihadists defected from the Taliban-al Qaeda axis and joined Baghdadi’s network after the caliphate declaration in 2014. It is not publicly known if that is how Masharipov ended up in the Islamic State’s camp, but it is possible.

However, subsequent reports indicated that he was trained in al Qaeda camps in Iraq. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) evolved into the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and then eventually into the current Islamic State.

Turkish officials found that Masharipov (pictured on the right) was likely smuggled into Turkey via Iran in Jan. 2016.

“I arrived in Turkey through Iran after receiving the orders to participate in the war in Syria last January [2016],” Masharipov told authorities, according to Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News. Masharipov continued: “I settled in [the Central Anatolian province of] Konya. While I was there, I received the order from Raqqa. I received the orders to carry out an attack on New Year’s Eve in Taksim [Square].”

After sending “the surveillance footage” back to the Islamic State’s headquarters in Raqqa, Syria, Masharipov determined that the original operation he planned to carry out wouldn’t be successful. So he put Reina in his crosshairs.

Hurriyet reported that Masharipov told officials the order for the operation came from Raqqa, Syria “via the Telegram smartphone app.”

If true, then the slaughter in Istanbul is yet another example of the Islamic State using publicly-available, encrypted messaging applications to direct operations around the globe. The group’s cyber planners have guided “remote-controlled” attacks everywhere from Europe to Southeast Asia using Telegram and similar apps. They have also reached out to willing recruits inside the US as well.

At first, the Islamic State was reticent to claim credit for attacks inside Turkey. Even significant operations that were widely suspected of being the group’s work, such as the June 2016 assault on the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, went unclaimed. Turkey has been a significant gateway for the jihadists throughout much of the Syrian war, and the Islamic State likely didn’t want to give authorities additional reasons to disrupt the flow of its fighters. But Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and his lieutenants began to change their approach after Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield in Aug. 2016. That cross-border invasion, which relied on various Syrian rebel groups, seized significant ground from Baghdadi’s caliphate in northern Syria.

In early November, Baghdadi called on his followers to strike inside Turkey. Within hours, the group claimed responsibility for a car bombing in the southeastern part of the country. The bombing may or may not have been the Islamic State’s doing. Turkish authorities blamed the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a US-designated terrorist organization.

Then, in early January, Amaq News Agency (one of the Islamic State’s main propaganda arms) issued a statement saying the New Year’s massacre in Istanbul was the work of the group’s “hero soldier.”

The fifth issue of the Islamic State’s Rumiyah (“Rome”) magazine, which was released in January, also celebrated the killings at Reina. Rumiyah’s editors said “one of the soldiers of the Khilafah struck a famous nightclub in Istanbul while the Christians were celebrating their pagan holidays inside.” The jihadist responsible “attacked the pagans with hand grenades as well as his assault rifle…in response to the order from Amirul-Muminin [“Emir of the Faithful” Baghdadi] to target Turkey, the servant of the Cross.”

The US military now says that a key facilitator of that attack, Abdurakhmon Uzbeki, is dead.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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