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The Killing of Maher Al-Aqal: IS’ Leadership Crisis

One day before he embarked on his trip to the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, US President Joe Biden announced the killing of Islamic State (IS) leader in Syria Maher Al-Aqal and the injury of one of his close associates. As per the US Central Command statement, Maher Al-Aqal is one of the top five leaders of IS.

This strike is symbolic of the US continued interest in the region, the war on terrorism, and the regional security threats, as is evidenced by the US Central Command maintaining an adequate and sustained presence in the region and the continuation of its endeavors to counter regional security threats, as per the statement the US Central Command tweeted.

The air strike, which was preceded by extensive planning, has several other indications, including the continuation of the threat of IS that strives to make a comeback by capitalizing on the  tensions in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and South Asia, particularly after the rise of the Taliban. This attempted return has been manifested in several specific operations carried out in April and May in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan, in what came to be known as “ the battle of Ramadan” in which IS targeted military headquarters, checkpoints, and civilians cooperating with the security forces in the Iraqi governorates of Nineveh, Diyala, Saladin, and Kirkuk. These attacks also included targeting military and police patrols, setting up fake checkpoints, carrying out explosive device attacks against Iraqi patrols and vehicles of troops whose units are deployed in the area surrounding ar-Rutba District. Over the past months, governments and security services have intensified their operations targeting IS elements and leaders in Iraq and Egypt, a strategy that proved effective whether implemented by the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS or the concerned countries combating IS on their territory.

The Murder of Maher Al-Aqal and the Beheading of New Leadership

Terrorist organizations, such as IS and Al-Qaeda, the leadership crisis they are crisis. Currently, these terrorist organizations are coming under a fierce war to ban their media platforms, much less their failure to symbolize any new leadership, their funding crisis, and cordoning off the road to their opportunities to make capital out of the internal crises and civil wars in the region since the Arab Spring.

The announcement of  the killing of Maher Al-Aqal  on Tuesday 12 July 2022 came within the framework of a years-long effective strategy known as the “iron hammer” strategy first initiated by the administration of former US President Barack Obama in Yemen since 2007 simultaneously with the expansion of the use of drones and remote-controlled aircraft over the past decade. In effect, this strategy proved successful in crippling several terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and IS and recently the spokesman for the US Central Command Colonel Joe Buccino announced killing of IS leader in Iraq, who is considered one of the key members of IS’ senior-level leadership team.

According to the statements of Buccino to Agence France-Presse (AFP), Al-Aqal was killed in a US drone strike while he was riding a motorcycle near Janders in Syria whereas one of his close associates was seriously injured. Buccino underscored the significance of this strategy, stating that “the removal of these IS leaders will disrupt the terrorist organization’s ability to further plot and carry out global attacks.”

Available information on Al-Aqal indicates that he is considered one of IS’ most hardliner elements. He is the brother of Fayez Al-Aqal, former top emir of IS in Raqqa who was killed in June 2020 and the Officer-in-Charge of the Delegated Regulatory Committee (the highest regulatory body within IS). His name splashed during IS’ control over Raqqa before the fall of his strongholds in 2017. He was in charge of IS’ General Command in the Levant, divided into nine IS’ provinces within Syrian territory, whose leadership appear and disappear in territories close to Turkey, i.e. Raqqa and the Euphrates (Al-Bukamal). Leaders of Ahrar Al-Sharqiya faction managed to facilitate his movement from the eastern Euphrates region to the Afrin region. Maher Al-Aqal was seeking to develop IS’ networks outside Iraq and Syria.

The Iron Hammer Strategy and the Assassination of Terrorist Leaders

The killing of Maher Al-Aqal comes within the US’ iron hammer strategy and the series of assassinations that targeted IS’ elements who have been active over the past years. This strike came after other qualitative operations carried out by the US forces in Syria. On 3 February 2022, US President Joe Biden announced the killing of the leader of the IS Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi Al-Qurashi, aka Abdullah Qardash, in another US drone strike, carried out by the US Special Forces in the Atme area of Idlib countryside near the Syrian-Turkish border. Back then, that strike raised questions about the significance of its time and place and its impact on the future of IS and its potential leadership following Al-Qurashi.

The Killing of Al-Aqal after Al-Qurashi and Al-Baghdadi

Before the strike that killed Maher Al-Aqal, there had been two raids that ended the lives of Abu Ibrahim Al-Qurashi and Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. The latest strike was different because it was conducted by a drone instead of dropping off troops as happened with the other two leaders. However, the three strikes share several common features, including:  

  1. There is coordination between IS and some other terrorist organizations in Syria. Abu Ibrahim Al-Qurashi was under the protection of the pro-Al-Qaeda Ḥurras ad-Din [Guardians of Religion] organization. Likewise, Maher Al-Aqal was under the protection of Ahrar Al-Sharqiya anti-IS group, which enables bridging the gap between IS and other terrorist organizations and contribute to providing exchanged protection and interests, notwithstanding their past conflicts.
  1. Terrorism is still teetering between rise and fall. The assassination of Qardash in February 2022 came after IS’ attack on Al-Hasakah prison to break hundreds of prisoners out. Al-Aqal was assassinated following major operations carried out by IS in Syria, Iraq, among others. Seemingly, the fight between terrorism and counter terrorism efforts will be ongoing, with terrorist organizations seeking emerging from its profound crisis regionally and internationally simultaneously with countries recovering from the internal crises, strengthening security coordination, and the intense US presence aimed at combating these groups.     
  1. These assassinations taking place near the Turkish border suggest that the location was carefully chosen to be out of sight, security follow-up, and targeting attempts.
  1. Following Al-Baghdadi’s murder, IS adopted a “periods of disempowerment” strategy, which establishes a decentralized system that allows movement and expansion of the various branches of the organization, which reduces repercussions of the killing of top leaders on branches.  In view of that, some observers believe that the assassination of Qardash and Al-Aqal may not have a significant impact on the organization’s cells that are currently decentralized and have the freedom to run their affairs according to their own circumstances.

Conclusion

Since the assassination of Mustafa Abul-Yazid in 2008, Osama bin Laden in 2011, and several other terrorist leaders, such as Atiyah Abdel-Rahman and Abu Muhammad Al-Masri, who was killed in Iran in November 2020, the “iron hammer” strategy has drained Al-Qaeda and its networks, isolated many of its branches from their leaders who are hiding now in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and proved effective in countering IS as well.

Just as Al-Qaeda is almost withering and disappearing and the dull presence and the long absence of its leaders, media, and organizations are in question, the iron hammer strategy may succeed in leaving IS suffering the same fate.

See Moayad Al-Tarifi, “Mā mada khūturat hagamāt Daesh al-akhīra” [How Dangerous Are IS’ Recent Attacks?], Independent Arabia, 27 April 2022. Available here.

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