Posted On November 29, 2016 By In World And 378 Views

Targeted Killings Thin ISIS’ Top Ranks

For a man given to fiery rhetoric and long-winded sermons, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani became oddly quiet during his last summer as the chief spokesman for the Islamic State. The Syrian who exhorted thousands of young Muslims to don suicide belts appeared increasingly obsessed with his own safety, U.S. officials say. He banished cellphones, shunned large meetings and avoided going outdoors in the daytime. He began sleeping in crowded tenements in a Syrian farm town called al-Bab, betting on the presence of young children to shield him from the drones prowling the skies overhead. But in late August, when a string of military defeats suffered by the Islamic State compelled Adnani to briefly leave his hiding place, the Americans were waiting for him. A joint surveillance operation by the CIA and the Pentagon tracked the 39-year-old as he left his al-Bab sanctuary and climbed into a car with a companion. They were headed north on a rural highway a few miles from town when a Hellfire missile struck the vehicle, killing both of them. The Aug. 30 missile strike was the culmination of a months-long mission targeting one of the Islamic State’s most prominent – and, U.S. officials say, most dangerous – senior leaders. The Obama administration has said little publicly about the strike, other than to rebut Russia’s claims that one its own warplanes dropped the bomb that ended Adnani’s life. But while key operational details of the Adnani strike remain secret, U.S. officials are speaking more openly about what they describe as an increasingly successful campaign to track and kill the Islamic State’s senior commanders, including Adnani, the No. 2 leader and the biggest prize so far. At least six high-level Islamic State officials have died in U.S. airstrikes in the past four months, along with dozens of deputies and brigadiers, all but erasing entire branches of the group’s leadership chart. Their deaths have left the group’s chieftain, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, increasingly isolated, deprived of his most capable lieutenants and limited in his ability to communicate with his embattled followers, U.S. officials say. Baghdadi has not made a public appearance in more than two years and released only a single audiotape – suggesting that the Islamic State’s figurehead is now in “deep, deep hiding,” said Brett McGurk, the Obama administration’s special envoy to the global coalition seeking to destroy Baghdadi’s self-proclaimed caliphate. “He is in deep hiding because we have eliminated nearly all of his deputies,” McGurk said at a meeting of coalition partners in Berlin this month. “We had their network mapped. If you look at all of his deputies and who he was relying on, they’re all gone.” The loss of senior leaders does not mean that the Islamic State is about to collapse. U.S. officials and terrorism experts caution that the group’s decentralized structure and sprawling network of regional affiliates ensure that it would survive even the loss of Baghdadi himself. But they say the deaths point to the growing sophistication of a targeted killing campaign built by the CIA and Defense Department over the past two years for the purpose of flushing out individual leaders who are working hard to stay hidden. The effort is being aided, U.S. officials say, by new technology as well as new allies, including deserters and defectors who are shedding light on how the terrorists travel and communicate. At the same time, territorial losses and military defeats are forcing the group’s remaining leaders to take greater risks, traveling by car and communicating by cellphones and computers instead of couriers, the officials and analysts said. “The bad guys have to communicate electronically because they have lost control of the roads,” said a veteran U.S. counterterrorism official who works closely with U.S. and Middle Eastern forces and who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive operations. “Meanwhile our penetration is better because ISIS’ situation is getting more desperate and they are no longer vetting recruits,” the official said, using a common acronym for the terrorist group. “We have a better picture inside ISIS now,” he said, “than we ever did against al-Qaida in Iraq.”

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