US military fails to ‘decimate’ Islamic State leadership despite thousands of airstrikes

The US killed three senior Islamic State commanders in separate airstrikes in the Iraqi-Syrian theater in late November, with a US military spokesman touting the strikes as “an example of how we’re able to decimate networks.”

Colonel Steve Warren, the spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, the US mission in Iraq and Syria, announced the deaths of the three Islamic State leaders during a Pentagon briefing yesterday. Among those killed was the Islamic State’s finance minister. The exact dates of death of the three Islamic State leaders was not disclosed; Warren only said all three were killed “in late November.”

The most prominent Islamic State leader who was killed was Abu Saleh, the Islamic State’s “financial minister” who was “one of the most senior and experienced members of ISIL’s [acronym for Islamic State] financial network,” Warren said. In addition, Abu Saleh was “a legacy Al Qaeda member.” The Islamic State was part of al Qaeda’s network until early 2014, when Ayman al Zawahiri ejected the jihadist group due to a leadership and territorial dispute with the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s branch in Syria.

Warren said that Abu Saleh was the third senior financial official killed by the US. “Killing him and his predecessors exhausts the knowledge and talent needed to coordinate funding within the organization,” Warren claimed. But independent press reports indicate that the Islamic State has not experienced a drop-off in revenue despite the targeting of its leaders and the oil fields they control.

Also killed were Abu Maryam, an Islamic State “enforcer and senior leader of their extortion network,” and Abu Rahman al Tunisi, who Warren said “functioned as a sort of ISIL executive officer, coordinating the transfer of information, people and weapons.” Warren claimed that Maryam’s death and the death of two other “senior” extortionists “is impairing ISIL’s ability to extort money from a civilian population.”

Warren concluded that the strikes that killed the three Islamic State leaders “are an example of how we’re able to decimate networks.”

There is little evidence that the Islamic State’s leadership has been decimated by the US air campaign and limited special operations raids, which began in Iraq in August 2014 and in Syria one month later. The coalition has launched a total of 8,783 strikes (5,765 in Iraq and 3,018 in Syria) as of Dec. 9, 2015, according to the US Department of Defense. Yet, according to the Pentagon’s own reporting only 13 senior and mid-level Islamic State leaders have been confirmed killed over the last 15 months (see list below).

The US has also targeted Islamic State leaders in Afghanistan and Libya in a limited number of strikes over the past year, killing four senior leaders.

The US government and its allies have abandoned a counterterrorism strategy to combat the spread of islamic State and al Qaeda insurgencies and the growth of their armies. Rather than fighting the jihadist groups on the ground as a viable insurgent force or state, the US has primarily relied on airstrikes, and in many cases, unmanned 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 Yemen since 2009, and Shabaab (al Qaeda’s branch in Somalia) and predecessors since 2006.

While US airstrikes have killed some top leaders in the Islamic State, al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other organizations, this tactic has not stopped the spread of jihadist groups across Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. Nor have airstrikes 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, and more recently the Islamic State, 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. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State control territory and have a deep bench of leaders and operatives who are willing to step in for those killed in the air campaigns.

List of senior Islamic State leaders killed in US and allied airstrikes and special operations raids in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Libya. This list only includes those confirmed killed by the US Department of Defense:


Late November 2014
Radwin Talib, a regional Islamic State commander.

Early December 2015
Abd al Basit, the head of the Islamic State’s military operations in Iraq.

May 15, 2015
Abu Sayyaf, a senior leader in the Islamic State who was “involved in ISIL’s military operations and helped direct the terrorist organization’s illicit oil, gas, and financial operations.” His wife, Umm Sayyaf, was captured.

June 15, 2015
Ali Awni al Harzi, a suspect in the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya and a legacy al Qaeda leader.

Aug. 18, 2015
Fadhil Ahmad al Hayali (a.k.a. Hajji Mutazz and Abu Musallam al Turkumani), the “senior deputy to ISIL leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi,” and “an ISIL media operative known as Abu Abdullah.” The US military erroneously reported that Hayali was killed in December 2014.

Aug. 21 & Aug. 21, 2015
Reyaad Khan (Aug. 21)and Junaid Hussain (Aug. 24), two British nationals involved in plotting attacks in the West.

Sept. 10, 2015
Abu Bakr al Turkmani, a senior Islamic State leader who served as an “administrative emir.”

Nov. 12, 2015
Mohamed Emwazi, the infamous British executioner who is better known as “Jihadi John.” Emwazi was the masked man behind the videotaped murders of US, British, and Japanese reporters and aide workers.

Late November 2015
Abu Saleh, the Islamic State’s financial minister.

Late November 2015
Abu Maryam, an Islamic State “enforcer and senior leader of their extortion network.”

Late November 2015
Abu Rahman al Tunisi, an Islamic State “executive officer, coordinating the transfer of information, people and weapons.”


Nov. 13, 2015
Wissam Najm Abd Zayd al Zubaydi, an Iraqi who US military claimed was the Islamic State’s emir of Libya.

Khorasan Province – Afghanistan and Pakistan

Feb. 9, 2015
Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim, the deputy governor of Khorasan Province. He was held by the US military at Guantanamo Bay up until he was transferred to Afghan custody in December 2007 and subsequently released.

July 10, 2015
Shahidullah Shahid, the spokesman for Khorasan Province.

Oct. 13, 2015
Jalaluddin, the mufti for the Khorasan Province. He was a disciple of a senior Taliban leader and al Qaeda facilitator who is a Specially Designated Global Terrorist and attended a madrassa in Pakistan that is listed by the US as a terrorist facility.

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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  • Gary says:

    “Decimate” means only to reduce by one-tenth.

  • Scott Jones says:

    No, we can’t take ground away from them with air strikes, but we can have an effect. I just read a report that U.S. air strikes in Ramadi alone have killed an estimated 350 fighters in recent days. The Pentagon estimates the city had 600-1000 ISIS fighters in it. Those strikes may have killed 1/3 – 1/2 of them.

    When I look at that list, it reminds me that they will be replaced with new leaders. But they will be leaders with no guarantee that today isn’t their last. And for many of them, their day is coming.

  • James says:

    You can not win wars in the air. They have to be won on the ground. Air strikes can be very effective, but they are not going to ‘clinch’ this thing. There has to be a global effort. It will take a host of nations to bring this thing under control. It can be done with a minimal force structure (or footprint) on the ground. The ‘down and dirty’ way to do it would be to just nuke Raqqa. But, that should be a remedy of last resort.

    It would also help if they were to use (and develop) better incendiary bombs. There are entire areas in the major metropolitan areas that are just saturated with IEDs. Obviously, this is slowing down the legitimate Iraqis ability to reclaim those contested areas to a crawl. The quickest and most effective way of dealing with that, at least in the short term, is to just carpet bomb them with napalm or some other suitable incendiary device.

    The only way I see them being able to accomplish the above on the ground would be to use some kind of a flame thrower. I’m no expert on flame throwers . I have no idea who makes the best one.

    Sure, it may be brutal. But for at least the short term, it may be the only effective way to get the job done.

  • Paulo Romero says:

    How would the US decimate a group , that’s blatantly supported by some of it’s allies in the mid-east??
    It has become obvious that directly or indirectly ISIS and Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria have received or are still receiving support from Turkey and the Saudis.
    The so-called coalition against ISIS has to share intelligence so most Western precision strikes will be an expensive waste of ordnance , because ISIS is forewarned by the complicit nation’s intelligence services.
    Barring the Kurds , there’s no reliable Western ally in Syria and even they have been attacked by the Turks on the pretext of fighting terrorism. Exactly who’s fighting who in Syria??
    Assad may be the lesser of two evils in this horrific war , it’s time to work with him , like the Russians and Iranians are doing.

  • Paddy Singh says:

    The idiots have not realised that having got rid of Osama, they have not decimated the Taliban or Al qaeeda. Had they gone in with their boots on when Isis first boasted about their Caliphate, they might have, but cowardice, dithering and totally brainless on what to do, they have let the Isis consolidate? And aerial warfare has never won a war by itself, no matter how powerful.

  • Arjuna says:

    So no Al Douri and no Al Shishani? Thought they were x’ed out. Bummer. Ain’t no way to win from the air with these R.O.E. They are hiding very well (in tunnels and suburban basements) so the only way to get them is to take out an entire area w carpet bombing and precise application of bunkerbusters. Give the civilians 48 hrs warning like the Israelis do, and bombs away!

  • shaneE says:

    Yes people tend to forget that and think it’s more haha

  • TRM says:

    Their day is coming hopefully soon.

  • not a wmd says:

    so the Iraq army couldn’t retake a major city back from 600 to 1000 fighters… our planes are going to have to be there a long time

  • Chris C says:

    Scott, I’ve been in the DoD business for more than 12yrs & can confidently tell you Roggio is absolutely right here. Yes air strikes have been decent at not allowing Daesh to expand territory but strikes in no way shape or form are “decimating” Nusra, ISIS or any other idiot group dejour. Sadly the lack of strategy for the last 7 yrs has allowed these groups to flourish. That’s not a political comment it’s a fact! The DoD welcomes & wants a strategy to rally behind but no such plans have come forth. We don’t expect one (a-political) one for the next year either. For now, continue to expect dishonesty exaggeration like the past & hope Europe & the US can hang on until rational leadership assumes the helm.

  • Baz says:

    Media reports of ‘high-ranking’ terrorist leaders being killed is mainly theatre and propaganda on the part of US coalition as is much of the ‘territorial gains’ media blitz. It’s all an effort to ease concerns and to play down the severity of the entire situation. I think the consistency of global attacks combined with the growth and expansion of the Islamic State cross the entire middle-east and Africa, the “War on terror” is about as successful as the “War on drugs”.

  • Evan says:

    Airstrikes alone will never be anything more than a temporary fix, a band-aid on a sorely infected wound that is spreading.

    we will have to end this fight, and we’ll have to do it alone,
    NONE of the middle eastern countries, I.e. UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, NONE of them are fighting the IS, because they’re afraid of the fact that their are significant portions of their own populations who not only tacitly support IS and AQ, they overtly support and encourage them, and to top it all off, none of those countries are taking a single Syrian or Iraqi refugee, they say it isn’t their problem, and that the Houthis are more of a threat…..

    i think we should force their hand, very quickly and quietly pack up and leave, come home with all our warriors and all our tech, and tell the world et al.,

  • Evan says:

    Also let me just add this,
    After my brothers fought and died to free places like fallujah, and ramadi, after my generation of Americans have done and sacrificed so much for these people, and then had those same sacrifices spit on and given up in vain overnight by the incompetent ingrates both in the White House and in the green zone, I ask you, what do we care?
    Why should we care? Why is this our problem? Syria and Iraq are a long long long way off, and those people had their freedom bought and paid for, and they didn’t and don’t care, so if Vlad and the red army clowns want to run around the Middle East for a while stirring up the pot and slaughtering like there’s no tomorrow, let em. If the Shiite want to kill Sunnis and vice versa, let em. If Syria is burning, let it burn. An d the next time the world needs help, the next time there’s bad men somewhere doing some bad things, we should ALL collectively say, um no, im busy, I have a……thing……in the oven…..

  • USA the hyper power, Russia, France and NATO are all flying planes inside Iraq and Syria against a rag tag outfit whose name was not known even 5 to 6 years back How is this possible? there are forces apart from turkey behind them is clear. the only boots on ground are of Kurds, Hizbollah and Iran national guard. but USA will not support them!!!! But now US Pentagon says they are running out of ammunition.!!!!!!!!!

  • Mike says:

    Thank you for the article it is well written. The consolidating the facts have earned its mark on my bookmark!

  • Brett says:

    Historically, yes decimate means to reduce 10% but the accepted modern vernacular
    means to kill or destroy a large percentage. This doesn’t distract us from the fact that removing senior leadership will lead to a reduced operational capability.

  • Scott,
    I, too, read that piece about the recent Ramadi airstrikes and I walked away from reading it simply not believing it. What you point out is stark – the % of ISIS fighters taken out would be amazing but considering how dug down they are in Ramadi, wouldn’t those airstrikes have had to literally level 25% of the city?

    I’ve looked for more information on it and can’t seem to find it. Sorry to be skeptical but for now, I don’t buy that we killed 350 in Ramadi – hell, I don’t buy that we killed 35o in all of Anbar.

  • craig hovey says:

    We assassinate individual leaders here and there, and at a pathetic pace. But we let stand arsenals, ammo dumps, assembly areas, and training facilities…. Remember, those were among the targets taken out by Jordan, and then more recently by France. How are targets like this allowed to still be standing? I am a bit thick. Can someone enlighten me?

  • Nuthaus says:

    Note to self: next time let’s try harder to negotiate a SOFA so we don’t have to restart a war against a “JV team” of Islamists.

  • longbow says:

    While US airstrikes have killed some top leaders in the Islamic State, al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other organizations, this tactic has not stopped the spread of jihadist groups across Middle East, South Asia, and Africa.

    This is not what was claimed. Interested parties in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa should attend to these matters. The US has bridges falling into rivers, rotten highways, airports falling apart and an education system failing miserably to compete with the civilized world. THOSE matters are the proper business of the US Government.

  • Baz says:

    Blaming “poor leadership” for the current state of affairs is viewing the situation out of a funnel. Accepting the only war America ever won was against the Japanese and that is after the atrocity of nuclear bombings would be a small step in realising that ‘leadership’ plays little in the outcome of any conflict America enters. America threw the full force of its military at the Taliban and al Qaeda 14yrs ago…where are we today? The Great American Army never even defeated and destroyed the Taliban and al Qaeda. Instead the mujahidin have grown bigger & stronger.


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