On August 30th, IS-affiliated Amaq News Agency reported that the organisations spokesman Abu Muhammed al-Adnani had been killed. As the voice of IS, al-Adnani became notorious for frequent violence messages, including recent calls for lone wolf attacks in Europe. IS has shown its resilience when facing the death of senior members before, however a loss of this magnitude will not be easy to manage.
A statement circulated by Amaq announced that Abu Muhammed al-Adnani (birth name Taha Falahu) was killed while surveying military operations in Aleppo. The communiqué praises the length of al-Adnani’s jihad and proclaims that he has joined ‘the caravan of martyred leaders’.
The death of al-Adnani in Aleppo, the focal point of heavy Al-Qaeda, Ahrar al-Sham and Assadist forces, led to rumours that he died at the hands of Syrian rebels. However a U.S military statement confirmed that coalition forces ‘conducted a precision strike near Al Bab, Syria, targeting Abu Muhammed al-Adnani…we are still assessing the results of the strike.’ Given this statement it is likely that al-Adnani was killed in such a strike and that the U.S, burnt by its premature announcement of Omar al-Shishani’s death, was waiting to confirm the news. The news emanating from Amaq, which serves IS’ primary source of disseminating information to members and sympathisers, means it is believable.
Abu Muhammed al-Adnani played a core and multifaceted role in the Islamic State. Alongside his public role as chief spokesperson for the terror group, he was responsible for its propaganda output. In this role Al-Adnani convened monthly meetings in order to review material and finalise which of the group’s gory videos would be promoted. Therefore Al-Adnani had direct control over the messaging of the group and its perception.
Furthermore al-Adnani, himself a Syrian, held responsibility for the governance of IS controlled territory in Syria overseeing tactics, strategy and military operations.
It was in his role as head of external operations that al-Adnani, subject to a five million dollar U.S bounty, has his true significance to IS is revealed. As a result of reporting by Rukmini Callimachi it is known that several European jihadis elucidated the importance of al-Adnani in organising and executing missions overseas. French jihadi, Faiz Bouchrane, arrested in Lebanon in 2014, revealed that he been given orders in person by Adnani to commit a suicide attack at Shia site following training in Syria. Further evidence was provided by two other French jihadis, Nicolas Moreau and Reda Hame, divulging that al-Adnani had ordered the recruitment of Europeans in order to carry out terror attacks in their home countries. The success of external operations under the direction of al-Adnani helped foster a sense of fear throughout Europe and represent a key moral booster for IS.
Al-Adnani’s death deprives IS of another first generation member heavily connected to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the deceased leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq who’s ideological and strategic orientations are most graphically realised in IS.
Adnani was absorbed in the world of Islamic extremist before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. An official IS biography, authored by High Cleric Turki al-Binali, places him as pledging allegiance to Zarqawi in Syria in early 2000. This would mean that al-Adnani joined Zarqawi’s earlier organisation, Tawhid wal Jihad, created using seed money provided by Al-Qaeda during Zarqawi’s stint in Afghanistan in the late 90’s. The death of these ‘founding fathers’ forces the transition to lower tiers of the group and their ascension to prominent positions. As a result it is possible that this could change the direction of the group and its operations. However it is unlikely this would manifest as an immediate change in tactics and strategy.
IS is rapidly losing territory in both Iraq and Syria and has recently relied upon successful external operations to obfuscate from its depleting Caliphate. IS external operations is a separate internal body of IS headed by al-Adnani reporting directly to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The loss of al-Adnani is likely to disrupt the planning and coordination of external missions in the short-term, particularly those with top down operations. Although it is unlikely to effect individual or small group lone wolf IS inspired attacks.
The power vacuum caused by al-Adnani’s death could also lead to infighting for his position, particularly at a time when IS is losing territory and may have difficulty assuring discipline. One possibility is that al-Adnani is replaced by two operatives, with his responsibilities for propaganda and spokesman being separated from external operations.
Perhaps the most significant consequence of al-Adnani’s demise is the loss of a potential Islamic State leader. The killing of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who is believed to have had several close escapes, is high on the U.S agenda and IS needs to assure a smooth and legitimate leadership transition in the case of Baghdadi’s death. One of the most interesting insights in the statement of al-Adnani’s death was the representation of him as a Qureshi, a member of the Prophet Mohammed’s tribe. Being a Qureshi is a pre-requisite of becoming Caliph and upon the announcement of the Caliphate IS also released details on Baghdadi’s family lineage. The identification of al-Adnani as a Qureshi demonstrates that, when combined with his operational responsibilities and seniority, he was the most likely to be next in line for the role of Caliph.
The death of al-Adnani is a big set back for the Islamic State. It is important to note that a Syrian holding a prominent role in the organisation benefits its control of Syrian areas, maintain a domestic link. While IS has proven itself able of replacing previous senior commanders, it will be much harder to replace a leader with such an important remit and a future Caliph in waiting.