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Death of a Salesman: The Implications of the Death of ISIS Spokesman Abu Muhammad Al-Adnani

By August 30, 2016 No Comments

Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, Islamic State lieutenant and spokesperson, has reportedly been killed in Aleppo, Syria on Aug. 30th, 2016 

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ISIS supporters fly the flag of the group in a propaganda photoshoot.

What We Can Expect From ISIS, post-Adnani

Amaq News, the predominant news outlet in Islamic State’s media apparatus, released Tuesday that the Islamic State’s spokesman and overseer of external terrorist operations, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, was killed in the Syrian province of Aleppo on Tuesday. The group or groups’ responsible for his death are still unclear, as Adnani had a long list of enemies operating in Northern Syria, including but not limited to Turkish, American and Russian aerial forces and Kurdish and Syrian rebels.

Adnani, a 39-year-old Syrian, was one of the most notorious of the remaining leadership of ISIS(also known as IS, ISIS, ISIL or Daesh , apart from his sole superior in organization hierarchy, ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

Strategic Implications

His death is significant not only as a symbolic victory in the fight against ISIS, but because of the multiple functions he served within ISIS. Adnani served as the group’s chief propagandist and spokesperson. It was Adnani that called for an increase in attacks on Western targets in what would be his final speech at the beginning of Ramadan in May 2016. The result of this imploration was one of the bloodiest stretches of terrorist attacks in European history, with attacks in France, Germany and Turkey that targeted public gatherings, transportation and tourists. This call to action was the beginning of the terrorist groups shift towards a more fragmented campaign of global jihad, and away from the conventional warfare that had led them to consolidate territory and establish the Caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Though the decision to shift strategy in this way was likely not solely Adnani’s, his death will have an effect on those who initially pledged allegiance and follow him, ISIS and al-Baghdadi.

Blowback

On the small scale, this effect may be in the form of retaliatory attacks, or the hastening of attacks already in planning stages. After the confirmed death of Abu Omar Al-Shishani in July, the attacks in Nice, France on Bastille Day 2016 were celebrated by ISIS sympathizers as a retaliatory justice. Similarly, the Brussels Airport and Metro attacks on March 22nd, 2016, were speculated to be a response to the arrest of Salah Abdeslam, an alleged planner of the November 153h Paris Attacks. In the coming days, an uptick in self-started attacks or ISIS-directed attacks may occur as the group seeks to challenge the narrative that it is being effectively curtailed by Coalition forces and security services.

Short-staffing

On the grander scale, these potential retaliatory attack may be offset by the larger strategic limitations that Adnani’s death poses for ISIS and its allies. Adnani was not only the spokesperson for the ISIS, he also sat the head of ISIS’s secret service, the Emni. In this position, he served as the fulcrum for launching terrorist attacks under the banner of ISIS. AS far back as 2014, the Emni and Al-Adnani exported terror from Iraq and Syria by operationalizing attacks in continental Europe. ISIS Defectors and captured militants have attested to the role Adnani played in organizing the logistics of attacks, providing advice and in some cases, “clean men” to deliver weapons and ammunition to ISIS sympathizers. In an exhaustive New York Times interview conducted by Rukmini Callimachi, ISIS defector and German prisoner Harry Soufo Adnani described how Adnani chaired monthly meeting to review and select execution videos to promote in their propaganda channels, recruited for ISIS special forces, and fostered a network of ISIS sympathizers in Western Europe. His death will undoubtedly disrupt these operations, even if a replacement can be found.

Heir Apparent

According to family members, Al-Adnani had also been going to lengths to prove his lineage to the al-Quraishi tribe, the tribe of the Prophet Muhammad. Lineage to the Prophet is required for the caliph and leader of ISIS, and is one of Al-Baghdadi’s greatest sources of legitimacy amongst jihadist sympathizers (Baghdadi claims relation to Muhammad). With Al-Adnani eliminated, Baghdadi’s heir apparent is removed and few contenders with the proper, or potential, lineage remain.

Buyer’s Remorse

Moreover, Adnani’s death comes at a time when the group, at least territorially speaking, is on its heels. ISIS has experienced massive territorial losses in Iraq and Syria and the strangling off of it’s supply of foreign fighters from neighbouring states and Europe. Analysts have speculated that groups that have pledged support to the group, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Sinai Province in Egypt, may be experiencing “buyer’s remorse” with ISIS. Adnani’s death, and potentially Baghdadi’s if it were to follow, would have a big effect on these waffling groups as many of them pledged allegiance to Baghdadi and Adnani, not ISIS itself. The elimination of these men could provide these groups with an opportunity to renege on their commitments and fracture ISIS’s brand and logistical power.

Unknowns

Conversely, ISIS may prove more resilient than this analysis has so far predicted in the face of Adnani’s death. Al Qaeda of Iraq (AQI), the predecessor of ISIS, continued to survive and intermittently thrive after the death of its leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006. Al-Qaeda overall has not faded since the death of Osama Bin Laden in 2011. Replacements can be found within the organization, and the fracturing and fragmentation of terrorist organization can have adverse consequences (ISIS itself is a result of a break from Al Qaeda). Moreover, Adnani is not even the leader of ISIS, and its true leader Baghdadi remains alive and well. The most conservative analysis to make is that eliminating ISIS’s top lieutenant will increase its resolve, diminish its capacity, and renew the impetus to find, capture or kill its remaining leaders.