The U.S. military captured an Islamic State “Operational and Facilitation official” during an operation in northern Syria last weekend. The raid marked the latest against the Islamic State’s network in Iraq and Syria, which has been weakened since it lost its physical caliphate in 2019, but continues to persist.
The Sept. 23 raid, which was carried out by U.S. Special Operations Forces based in northern Syria, resulted in the capture of Abu Halil al-Fad’ani, whom U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) said has “relationships throughout the ISIS network in the region.” CENTCOM said that there were no civilian casualties as a result of the operation. The Islamic State hasn’t confirmed details of the raid or al-Fad’ani’s capture.
The U.S. military has continued to target the Islamic State’s top and mid-level leadership in an effort to cause a void in the group’s command structure and lead to its eventual collapse. CENTCOM has reported on its raids in Iraq and Syria monthly. In August, CENTCOM said it launched 28 raids in Iraq and eight more in Syria and, resulting in seven ISIS operatives killed and 25 captured. CENTCOM has recorded similar numbers for the previous months, indicating a steady drumbeat of raids against the terror group.
The Islamic State has suffered significant attrition of its top leadership cadre since the group’s founder and first emir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed in a U.S. raid in Oct. 2019. The Islamic State has cycled through four leaders since Baghdad’s death. Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Quraishi, Baghdadi’s successor, served as emir for two and a half years before he was killed. Abu Ibrahim’s successor, Abu al-Hasan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi lasted eight months, and Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Quraishi, just six months. The Islamic State named Abu Hafs al-Hashimi al-Quraishi as the current emir last month.
While the Islamic State “continues to face leadership challenges due to ongoing counter-terrorism pressure,” as the United Nations Security Council’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team noted in its latest report on the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, the terror group appears to be adapting. The attrition has caused the Islamic State “to adopt a flat command and control structure; the role of the overall leader has become less relevant to the group’s functioning.”
The Islamic State has compensated for the targeting of its leaders by giving more power and authority to the head of its General Directorate of Provinces (GDP). The last leader of the General Directorate of Provinces, Ali Jasim Salman al-Juburi, who is also known as Abu Sara al-Iraqi, “influenced [Islamic State] strategy, played a key role in personnel assignment, including the previous two [Islamic State] leaders, and directed external operations and finances.”
Juburi, who was killed in an airstrike in Feb. 2023, was described as the Islamic State’s “shadow leader.” It is the GDP that actually oversees and manages most of the Islamic State’s external affairs, including the coordination of various affiliates around the world through a system of so-called ‘regional offices.’ While member UN states described Juburi’s death as a “significant blow” to the Islamic State, “his loss appears to have disrupted the group only for the short term.”
Despite the targeting of its leaders in Syria and to a lesser extent in Iraq, the Islamic State “is assessed to remain resilient, commanding between 5,000 to 7,000 members across the two countries,” according to the UN’s Monitoring Team. Additionally, an estimated 11,000 Islamic State fighters are currently in prisons across Syria, where the group is known to maintain its networks, using the time behind bars to also indoctrinate and recruit new members. If this estimate is accurate, the Islamic State has a large pool of battle-hardened fighters and commanders from which to recruit.
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