As Islamic State expands its global reach by directing and inspiring attacks in the West, the U.S. is stepping up its offensive in Iraq and Syria, including increased military operations, additional U.S. forces and targeted raids to wipe out the militant group's top leadership.
Islamic State's No. 2, Rahman Mustafa Qaduli, also known as Abu Ala Afri and Haji Imam, was killed in one such raid in Syria on Thursday, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Friday.
An influential finance minister for Islamic State and a close advisor to the group's leader, Abu Bakr Baghdadi, Qaduli died as special operations forces attempted to capture him in his vehicle, according to officials who were not authorized to speak publicly about the details of the mission. Qaduli had been monitored by U.S. surveillance for several days before the operation was launched, officials said.
The raid was part of what American officials are calling a new phase in the 18-month-old campaign to storm Islamic State compounds in a series of late-night raids with Iraqi and Kurdish forces. The operations have already killed or captured several top militants, and netted key sources of intelligence, including laptops and cellphones. Interrogations with captured militants have shed light on the shadowy group, U.S. officials said.
The intelligence has set off a domino effect in which one raid has led to others and provided targeting information for daily bombing runs that have blown up militant-held oil production sites and cash hoards.
“We've learned a great deal, and we continue to learn about who is who in ISIL, so we can kill them, about how they get their finances, so we can dry that up,” Carter said, using an acronym for Islamic State. “And the forces that we're working with on the ground in both Iraq and Syria continue to gather strength because our strategic approach for the retaking of territory is to help local forces to do so.”
The town of Shadadi in eastern Syria was seized from Islamic State last month by the Kurdish YPG, with the help of U.S. special forces. In recent days, Islamic State has lost significant ground in Palmyra to the Syrian army, backed by Russian airstrikes. The Pentagon estimates that Islamic State has lost 20% of Syrian territory it controlled at its peak in 2014, and 40% of Iraqi territory.
Still the U.S. knows that victory is not yet within grasp, particularly if the group continues to inspire or help carry out deadly attacks, such as the one this week in Brussels and previous attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Carter said.
As Islamic State loses ground in Syria and Iraq, the group will likely turn even more of its attention to attacks in Europe and the West, said Daniel Benjamin, a former State Department counter-terrorism coordinator who now teaches at Dartmouth College.
“They have a profound need to show they are still in the game, capable of still inflicting attacks against the West, particularly because the sheen is off the Islamic State itself,” Benjamin said. As the U.S. and its coalition partners push in on Islamic State's territory in Syria and Iraq, Benjamin added, “that puts the pressure on the group to carry out more attacks like the one we saw in Brussels.”
Islamic State controls major cities including Mosul in northern Iraq and Raqqah in northeastern Syria, and continues to declare its “caliphate.”
Christopher Harmer, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington and a retired Navy officer, said Islamic State leaders once instructed foreign recruits to come to the caliphate to wage jihad. Now, they instruct the recruits to stay put.
“They want fighters to mount attacks at home or elsewhere,” Harmer said. “The strategic arc of this fight has changed. The caliphate remains the heartland, but it is just one element of what's become a global battlefield. This is a multigenerational war.”
Carter would not confirm how or where Qaduli died, but he characterized the raid as part of an ongoing U.S. military campaign to eliminate Islamic State's leadership structure in Iraq and Syria. “We are systemically eliminating ISIL's Cabinet,” Carter said.
Qaduli, believed to be about 59 years old, was a key player in Islamic State's military and financial operations, according to the Pentagon. He joined Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2004, serving as Abu Musab Zarqawi's liaison for operations with Pakistan. The group was later rebranded as Islamic State. He was held in U.S. custody at the Camp Bucca military prison in Iraq in 2006, along with many other prisoners who went on to senior positions in Islamic State. He was released in 2012.
Within two years, Qaduli — operating under no fewer than 12 aliases — had been designated by the U.S. government as one of the world's most dangerous terrorists. The $7-million bounty offered by the U.S. for his capture was the sixth highest reward for any terrorist, and second among Islamic State members only to the $10-million reward for Baghdadi.
Carter also confirmed the death of another senior Islamic State leader, Omar Shishani, or “Omar the Chechen,” who died in a separate March 14 U.S. airstrike. He added that other recent U.S. military strikes killed Abu Sara, an Islamic State leader charged with paying fighters in northern Iraq, and militants “who were directly involved in external plotting and training.”
Recent raids gave U.S. intelligence officials deeper insights into how and where Islamic State's leadership operates. Earlier this year, a U.S. special operations team captured Sulayman Dawud Bakkar near Tall Afar in northern Iraq.
Bakkar, a former expert in chemical and biological warfare agents under Saddam Hussein, told interrogators about two of Islamic State's chemical weapons storage sites that were later targeted in U.S. airstrikes, U.S. officials said.
American commandos located Bakkar because of leads found during a Delta Force raid last year against the head of Islamic State's black-market oil and gas operations. The target, Abu Sayyaf, was killed, but his wife, Nisreen Assad Ibrahim Bahar, was arrested, and a cache of notebooks, laptops and cellphones were brought back to a base in Iraq.
The trove yielded details about Islamic State leaders and the group's financial system, including how it raised and stored cash. The Justice Department filed an arrest warrant in February charging Bahar with conspiracy to provide material support to Islamic State. She remains in Kurdish custody.
The U.S. combat role is also expanding with a new outpost in northern Iraq that provides artillery fire to support Iraqi troops as they mount their ongoing offensive to retake the strategic city of Mosul. Pentagon officials confirmed this week the creation of the outpost, named Fire Base Bell, which is populated by nearly 200 Marines and is the first American combat base since the U.S. returned to Iraq in 2014. Staff Sgt. Louis F. Cardin, 27, of Temecula died there Saturday after coming under Islamic State rocket fire.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford, who appeared alongside Carter, said the base was to provide security for Iraqi forces and U.S. advisors at the nearby Iraqi base in Makhmour.
The Pentagon is presenting President Obama with additional ways to increase the U.S. military presence in Iraq. “We have a series of recommendations that we will be discussing with the president in the coming weeks to further enable our support for the Iraqi security forces,” Dunford said.
“The secretary and I both believe that there will be an increase to the U.S. forces in Iraq in the coming weeks, but that decision hasn't been made.”
The increased tempo of raids has made a “dent” in Islamic State's ability to give orders and use resources, Dunford added, but more work needs to be done. “There's a lot of reasons for us to be optimistic about the next several months,” he said. “But by no means would I say that we're about to break the back of ISIL or that the fight is over.”