Islamic State says senior official killed in Aleppo province

The Islamic State announced today that Abu Muhammad al Adnani, one of the organization’s most senior officials, has been killed in Aleppo. The US Department of Defense subsequently confirmed that Adnani was targeted in “a precision strike near Al Bab, Syria,” but added that the US is “still assessing the results of the strike.”

Adnani’s death was first reported by Amaq News Agency, which is part of the Islamic State’s propaganda machine. Amaq said Adnani “was martyred while surveying the operations to repel the military campaigns against Aleppo.”

The Islamic State subsequently released a formal martyrdom statement for Adnani, describing him as the “Husayni Qurashi Shaykh.” In addition to Adnani, the Islamic State has claimed that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi belongs to the Prophet Mohammed’s tribe. This is intended to give the group a veneer of legitimacy.

Naba photo of Adnani

The Islamic State’s weekly Naba newsletter was also released online today. And Naba’s cover featured an article about Adnani’s “martyrdom.” The photo used by Naba can be seen on the right.

Adnani served as the Islamic State’s spokesman for years, but his role went far beyond that of a propagandist. The Pentagon described him as the “principal architect of [the Islamic State’s] external operations,” meaning the part of the organization devoted to planning attacks in the West and elsewhere abroad. Adnani “coordinated the movement” of fighters, “directly encouraged lone-wolf attacks on civilians and members of the military,” and also “actively recruited” new members.

He was also one of the most important figures in the rivalry between the Islamic State and al Qaeda.

One of the first foreign fighters to join the jihad in Iraq

In August 2014, the State Department added Adnani to the US government’s list of designated terrorists. State said that Adnani’s real name was Taha Sobhi Falaha and identified him as “one of the first foreign fighters to oppose Coalition forces in Iraq.”

According to a biography published online by Turki al Binali in 2014, Adnani swore allegiance to Abu Musab al Zarqawi in 2000. At the time, they were both in Syria.

Adnani allegedly served Zarqawi’s organization in multiple capacities. Binali said Adnani was part of a jihadist cadre that first intended to fight Bashar al Assad’s regime in Syria. According to Binali, Adnani was harassed and imprisoned by Assad’s forces, but eventually freed.

Adnani then joined Zarqawi’s jihad against American forces in Iraq. He steadily rose through the ranks of Zarqawi’s group, which became al Qaeda’s formal arm in Iraq in 2004. Although Binali didn’t note it, the Assad regime hosted a pipeline for foreign fighters seeking to join al Qaeda in Iraq’s ranks. This undoubtedly helped Zarqawi’s and Adnani’s operation grow and set the stage for jihadist blowback in Syria.

At some point, according to Binali, Adnani was detained and imprisoned by American forces in Iraq. Binali credited Adnani with establishing a robust training program, including instruction in sharia law, for his fellow prisoners. Adnani was freed from the American detention camps and quickly returned to the jihad.

Binali has served as one of the Islamic State’s chief religious officials, according to the UN. But some parts of Binali’s account of Adnani’s life are difficult to verify.

Regardless, Adnani’s senior role in the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), which was founded in 2006, is well known. He served as the ISI’s spokesman for years, frequently citing al Qaeda leaders as a point of reference.

Key figure in rivalry between Islamic State and al Qaeda

After al Qaeda’s general command disowned the Islamic State in February 2014, Adnani became a key figure in the jihadist rivalry. His words dripped with animosity toward Ayman al Zawahiri, Abu Muhammad al Julani (the head of Al Nusrah Front), and others opposed to the Islamic State’s expansion into Syria.

In May 2014, for instance, Adnani released an audio message titled, “Apologies, Emīr of Al Qaeda.” Adnani claimed that the Islamic State’s forerunner (the Islamic State of Iraq, or ISI) was not really an official branch of al Qaeda’s international organization. His argument was intended to exonerate Abu Bakr al Baghdadi from the charge that Baghdadi had broken his oath of allegiance to Zawahiri by refusing to follow the al Qaeda leader’s orders.

As The Long War Journal reported at the time, however, Adnani struggled to explain how the Islamic State was not really an arm of al Qaeda prior to the infighting in Syria. [See LWJ report, ISIS spokesman blames Zawahiri for infighting in Syria.]

For example, Adnani confirmed that the ISI had sent a message to al Qaeda’s senior leadership in which the ISI affirmed its “loyalty to the figures of the ummah as manifested in al Qaeda.” According to Adnani, the ISI’s message also said that al Qaeda would “have the final say in leading jihad in the world,” even though al Qaeda’s official presence had been supposedly dissolved inside Iraq. In the past, Adnani said, he and his comrades “revered” and “glorified” al Qaeda “to the extent that we have not obeyed leaderships other than this leadership.”

The Baghdadi loyalist even conceded that the ISI had agreed to abide by at least some of al Qaeda’s directives, including an order to refrain from attacking inside Iran because al Qaeda wanted to “safeguard its interests and supply lines in Iran.” Files recovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound confirm that bin Laden did, in fact, issue such an order. In his May 2014 speech, Adnani went so far as to say: “Let history record that Iran owes al Qaeda invaluably.”

Adnani also said that the ISI had refrained from operating inside Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, so as to not “disobey the figures and leaders of jihad” in al Qaeda. This would change after the split between the Islamic State and al Qaeda. By the end of 2014, the Islamic State was aggressively marketing its expansion in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Adnani would sometimes personally recognize the formation of new “provinces” for the “caliphate.” This was another indication of his relative importance within the organization.

Al Qaeda responded to Adnani’s claim that the ISI wasn’t really a part of al Qaeda by pointing to past statements made by Adnani and others. Just over one week before the release of Adnani’s “Apologies, Emīr of Al Qaeda,” Zawahiri produced his own message detailing the historical ties between the two organizations. [See LWJ report, Zawahiri makes another attempt at reconciliation in Syria.]

Zawahiri said that Abu Hamza al Muhajir, who cofounded the ISI in 2006, had sent a message stating “that the ISI is a branch belonging to al Qaeda and explained that it was established in secret due to some political circumstances forced on them in Iraq back then.” Zawahiri argued that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi maintained the ISI’s fealty to al Qaeda after he rose to the ISI’s top spot in 2010. Indeed, after bin Laden was killed in May 2011, Baghdadi issued a statement saying that Zawahiri had “faithful men” in the ISI. In late May 2011, Zawahiri added, a “liaison” for the ISI sent a message to al Qaeda’s leaders asking if the ISI should “renew its allegiance publicly or secretly as before.” Al Qaeda has consistently maintained that the ISI’s allegiance was stated in private.

Adnani himself publicly praised Zawahiri’s selection as the new emir of al Qaeda. “[W]e congratulate him [Zawahiri] for his new position, and we ask Allah to help him in fulfilling the responsibility and guide him to what He likes and accepts,” Adnani said in August 2011.

A year and a half later, according to Zawahiri, Adnani sent him a letter. In the correspondence, dated March 31, 2013, Adnani allegedly referred to Zawahiri as “my emir” and “sheikh.”

In April 2013, however, Baghdadi attempted to subsume Al Nusrah Front as part of a newly branded organization. Abu Muhammad al Julani refused to comply with Baghdadi’s orders. Zawahiri sided with Julani and the rest is history.

In the months that followed, Adnani’s once adulatory language turned into invective. He helped spread new anti-al Qaeda arguments and said that all jihadists opposed to the Islamic State were members of the “awakening,” a reference to the tribal forces that allied with the US to turn back the ISI’s initial advances in Iraq. [See LWJ Report, Islamic State spokesman calls on other factions to ‘repent,’ urges sectarian war.]

Led call for attacks in the West

As the Islamic State’s global tentacles grew, so did Adnani’s role in calling for attacks in the West. He routinely encouraged the so-called caliphate’s supporters to lash out against the West and kill civilians in the countries belonging to the anti-Islamic State coalition. Adnani implored his group’s followers to kill citizens of the West in any manner they could.

Adnani also called on the Islamic State’s supporters to strike in the West if they were prevented from traveling to the lands of the caliphate.

In May, for instance, Adnani told followers that if foreign governments “have shut the door of hijrah [migration] in your faces,” then they should “open the door of jihad in theirs,” meaning in the West. “Make your deed a source of their regret,” Adnani continued. “Truly, the smallest act you do in their lands is more beloved to us than the biggest act done here; it is more effective for us and more harmful to them.”

“If one of you wishes and strives to reach the lands of the Islamic State,” Adnani told his audience, “then each of us wishes to be in your place to make examples of the crusaders, day and night, scaring them and terrorizing them, until every neighbor fears his neighbor.”

Adnani told jihadists that they should “not make light of throwing a stone at a crusader in his land,” nor should they “underestimate any deed, as its consequences are great for the mujahidin and its effect is noxious to the disbelievers.”

It appears that at least some of the terrorists who have struck inside Europe in recent months were complying with Adnani’s order.

Adnani has been woven into the fabric of the Islamic State’s mythology. The 14th issue of the group’s Dabiq magazine included a profile of Khālid al Bakrāwī (a.k.a. Abū Walīd al-Baljīkī), who blew himself up at the Maalbeek metro station in Brussels in March. Bakrāwī supposedly had a series of prophetic dreams that revealed his destiny as an Islamic State operative. In one of the dreams, which were likely apocryphal, Bakrāwī blew himself up among Turkish soldiers. Adnani then inspected his severed head to see if he was smiling, which would be interpreted as a sign of “martyrdom.”

It is likely that Adnani was involved in the planning of the Belgium attack and other high-profile assaults in Europe. The New York Times reported earlier this month that Adnani was in “overall command” of the Islamic State’s external operations arm, which plans attacks in the West. Today’s statement by the Defense Department likewise describes this as one of several roles that Adnani played.

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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