The White House announced today that Fadhil Ahmad al Hayali (a.k.a. Hajji Mutazz), the “senior deputy to ISIL leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi,” was “killed in a US military airstrike on August 18 while traveling in a vehicle near Mosul, Iraq, along with an ISIL media operative known as Abu Abdullah.” ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is the US government’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State.
A statement attributed to NSC Spokesperson Ned Price describes al Hayali as “the second in command of the terrorist group ISIL” and as an “ISIL Shura Council member.” He was “a primary coordinator for moving large amounts weapons, explosives, vehicles, and people between Iraq and Syria.” Al Hayali “supported ISIL operations in both countries and was in charge of ISIL operations in Iraq, where he was instrumental in planning operations over the past two years, including the ISIL offensive in Mosul in June 2014.”
The NSC says al Hayali was a member of al Qaeda in Iraq and stayed with the organization as it evolved into the current ISIL, which claims to rule as a “caliphate” over large parts of Iraq and Syria. Al Hayali’s “influence spanned ISIL’s finance, media, operations, and logistics.”
Al Hayali was reportedly killed at least once before. In December 2014, US military officials told the press al Hayali (identifying him by his alias, Hajji Mutazz) had been killed in one of two airstrikes against ISIL’s top leadership late last year.
Like a number of other senior leaders in the so-called “caliphate,” al Hayali’s dossier begins in Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime. And details of his career were reportedly uncovered in documents captured from other fallen ISIL leaders.
In 2014, two ISIL leaders, Abu Abdulrahman al Bilawi (a.k.a. Adnan Ismail Najm), the group’s military emir, and Samir al Khlifawi (a.k.a. Hajji Bakr), Baghdadi’s deputy, were killed. Al Sharq al Awsat, citing Hashim al Hashimi, an analyst who read the documents recovered in Bilawi’s house, subsequently reported that al Hayali was formerly “a lieutenant colonel in the Iraqi Army’s intelligence service, and served for a time as [an] officer in the Special Forces.”
Bilawi himself had served as an infantry officer before joining al Qaeda in Iraq. Khlifawi was a former colonel who had been involved in the development of weapons systems. Khilfawi is widely credited in jihadist circles with helping to flame the feud between ISIL and al Qaeda. The uncompromising approach that both he and Baghdadi took to waging jihad meant that their organization would inevitably clash with anyone who didn’t take their orders.
Still other senior ISIL leaders were once members of Saddam’s military and intelligence services as well. The current ISIL has successfully fused elements of the oppressive Baathist regime with a gory version of global jihadism to become a lethal killing machine. Its Baathist roots give ISIL a home turf advantage in Iraq and enhance its military efficacy, while its jihadist roots give the organization a wider appeal, bringing in recruits from around the globe.
The loss of al Hayali may very well “adversely impact ISIL’s operations,” as the NSC says in its statement today. But the organization and its predecessors have survived decapitation strikes in the past. Like other insurgency organizations that use terrorism as a tactic to achieve their goals, ISIL has a deep bench of middle managers who are capable of filling in for leaders taken out by the US and its allies.
Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the founder of al Qaeda in Iraq, was killed in June 2006. The insurgency was not stopped. Nearly four years later, in April 2010, Zarqawi’s successors, known Abu Ayyub al Masri and Abu Omar al Baghdadi, were killed. Their front organization, the Islamic State of Iraq, was severely degraded by a leadership attrition campaign, the US-led surge of forces, and a tribal “awakening.” But the group quickly rebounded once the last American forces were withdrawn from Iraq at the end of 2011. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi took over and, under his leadership, the Islamic State (or ISIL) became the global pariah that it is today.
Still, the loss of leaders such as al Hayali can have unexpected consequences. Baghdadi’s rise to power, along with other events, eventually led al Qaeda to disown the group.