The coalition against ISIS might have just taken down one of the group’s highest-level targets. On September 4th, Iraq’s defence ministry announced that Abu Hajar al-Souri, the top aide to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed in an airstrike in Mosul.
It’s hard to assess the significance of al-Souri’s death, since analysts and observers have only a tenuous sense of ISIS’s organizational structure and of the substance of Baghdadi’s day-to-day interactions with his various lieutenants in the field. ISIS is organised into 16 administrative districts, and documents recovered on the battlefield give a sense of who reports to who. But relatively little is known about Baghdadi himself, who is so secretive that he reportedly wears a mask when meeting with ISIS captives.
Baghdadi’s obsessive layers of secrecy, and the still-unknown nature of ISIS’s chain of command, might actually hint at the possible importance of al-Souri’s death. As Iraqi journalist Moushreq Abbas wrote in Al Monitor, Baghdadi seldom interacts with people outside of a small and highly-trusted inner circle. He is incredibly risk-averse in terms of where he goes and who he meets with:
An investigating officer working in the fight against terrorism in Iraq asserted to Al-Monitor that the mystery surrounding Baghdadi is because “Baghdadi was keen to keep his movements very limited. He limited his contacts to a few members who know him directly. Many of the [released] detainees who are members of the organisation, some of them in the leadership, have either never met Baghdadi or met him while he was wearing a face cover.”
It’s important that someone with such scrupulous operational security has lost his right-hand man. Perhaps Baghdadi is concerned with potentially losing Mosul in the face of U.S. airstrikes and Iranian, Iraqi, and Kurdish pushback against ISIS’s advance through central Iraq, and sent one of his top aides to the Islamic State’s most important frontline. A confirmation of a top lieutenant death would indicate that the U.S. and its various partners in the region are getting closer to striking at the top level of the organisation.
The U.S. National Security Council refused comments to Business Insider.
On the other hand, ISIS’s operations are sprawling and operationally de-centralized to the point where the deaths of individual aides, who don’t even appear on the most reliable organizational flow charts, may have a negligible impact on the battlefield.
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