US military confirms it killed Islamic State, Shabaab leaders in airstrikes


Islamic State fighters march in Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Image from an Islamic State video released in January 2015.

The US military confirmed that it killed the Islamic State’s deputy emir for ‘Khorasan province’ in an airstrike in southern Afghanistan on Feb. 9, and the head of Shabaab’s external operations and intelligence branch in a separate drone strike in southern Somalia on Jan. 31. The US continues to rely on airstrikes as the core of its effort to defeat jihadist groups worldwide.

The confirmation of the deaths of Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim, who was appointed the deputy governor of the Islamic State’s Khorasan province in January, and Yusuf Dheeq, the chief of Shabaab’s Amniyat, or intelligence service, was disclosed in a briefing yesterday by Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby.

Khadim’s leadership role in Islamic State was short-lived

Kirby stated that on Feb. 9, “US forces in Afghanistan conducted a precision strike in Helmand province, resulting in the death of eight individuals, to include Abdul Rauf Khadim, a former Taliban commander.”

Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security immediately confirmed Khadim’s death on Feb. 9. The Islamic State has not released a martyrdom statement for Khadim.

Khadim was captured by US forces in December 2001, held by the US military at Guantanamo Bay up until he was transferred to Afghan custody in December 2007, and subsequently freed by the Afghan government in 2009. After his release, he was quickly appointed to a senior position within the Taliban. In 2010, he served as the Taliban’s shadow governor for Uruzgan province and is also reported to have been a member of the Taliban’s Quetta Shura Council.

Khadim, who was one of Mullah Omar’s top deputies and military commanders, is said to have severed ties with the Taliban last year after losing an internal power struggle. He is said to have joined the Islamic State earlier this year. On Jan. 26, the spokesman for the Islamic State said Khadim swore allegiance to emir Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, and was appointed the deputy governor of the Khorasan province. The Khorasan is a geographical region that covers Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of neighboring countries.

The Pentagon spokesman described the Islamic State’s presence in Afghanistan as “nascent at best” and “aspirational.”

“In fact, I would say more aspirational than anything else at this point,” Kirby continued. “This guy Khadim, we assess that he decided to swear allegiance to ISIL [Islamic State] probably no more than a couple weeks ago. And he didn’t have a whole lot of depth to any network resources or manpower when he did it.”

Khadim was perhaps one of the most active Islamic State commanders in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is said to have had scores of fighters under his command and was operating in Kajaki district in northern Helmand province, where he was killed.

Second leader of the Amniyat killed in less than 2 months

Dheeq, the Shabaab leader, “and an associate” were killed in an operation that utilized “unmanned aerial aircraft and Hellfire missiles,” Kirby confirmed. The Pentagon first noted on Feb. 3 that Dheeq was targeted several days earlier, but was unable to confirm his death. Somali officials reported that Dheeq was killed within 24 hours of the strike. [See LWJ report, US drone strike targets Shabaab’s external operations chief

The Amniyat is a key organization within Shabaab. It is instrumental in executing suicide attacks inside Somalia as well as in Kenya and other African nations, conducting assassinations, providing logistics and support for operations, and integrating the group’s local and regional commands. A top Amniyat official known as “Hassan” is said to have received direct instructions from al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri on training operatives in Africa. [See LWJ report, UN warned of Shabaab ally’s ‘new and more complex operations’ in Kenya, and Threat Matrix report, Zawahiri’s man in Shabaab’s ‘secret service’.]

The Amniyat is also responsible for protecting Shabaab’s emir, and in the past has carried out executions for the group’s leader.

The US has targeted and killed several top leaders of the Amniyat in the recent past. The US killed Tahlil Abdishakur, the previous leader of the Amniyat, in an airstrike in Somalia on Dec. 29, 2014.

US continues to rely on tactic of decapitation vs counterinsurgency

The deaths of Khadim and Dheeq, as well as Harith bin Ghazi al Nadhari, a senior al Qaeda sharia official in Yemen on Jan. 31, highlights the US government’s abandonment of counterinsurgency to fight the spread of jihadist movements throughout the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. President Barack Obama ordered the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq at the end of 2011, and will pull US forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2016.

Instead of fighting the jihadist groups on the ground, the US has relied on airstrikes, and in many cases, unmanned aerial vehicles that are more commonly called drones to target senior and mid-level leaders of the jihadist groups. This tactic has been used against al Qaeda, the Taliban and allied groups in Pakistan since 2007, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen since 2009, and Somalia since 2006.

While the airstrikes have killed some top al Qaeda, Taliban, and allied leaders, they have not stopped the spread of jihadist groups across Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. Nor have they denied these groups territory, which is crucial for the group to train fighters, maintain local insurgencies, and plot attacks against the West. Despite years of airstrikes against al Qaeda and its allies, the groups still control territory in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia, and they are waging active insurgencies in Nigeria, Mali, Egypt, the Caucasus, and elsewhere.

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

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  • m3fd2002 says:

    If the US can get Izzat Al-Douri (iraq), Ayman Al-Zawahiri (egypt), and Mohammed Omar (afghanistan) it would go a long way to validate the decapitation strategy, at least politically. We’ve been at this for many years. However, the last two paragraphs of this article are right on point regarding the big picture.

  • Hobbesian says:

    When you see all those countries where they still operate freely, that just lets you know boots on the ground is not realistic. There’s not enough boots for all that ground. Decapitation is the only way for now, especially given the politics back in the homeland. Keep hammering away with airstrikes and wait for them to further overreach as with burning of pilot. There must eventually be a backlash, mustn’t there?

  • Fred says:

    “This tactic has been used against al Qaeda, the Taliban and allied groups in Pakistan since 2007, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen since 2009, and Somalia since 2006.”
    Well, the strategy is obviously not working. The enemy doesn’t seem to be running out of replacement leaders and keeps gaining ground even after half a decade of implementation.
    Maybe “pulling the troops out” was not a wise choice after all.


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