WASHINGTON — American Special Operations forces in eastern Syria killed a top Islamic State commander this week, Pentagon officials said Friday, part of a monthslong campaign the Obama administration boasts is eviscerating the Islamic State even as the group continues to demonstrate the power to sow violence in Western Europe.
The US forces originally hoped to capture the commander, Abdul-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, and were following his vehicle in at least two helicopters, according to a senior military official who requested anonymity. But their plan to land Special Operations fighters, seize al-Qaduli and return him to the helicopter changed for unknown reasons, and they fired on the vehicle instead, killing him.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced al-Qaduli’s death, describing him as the group’s top financier, but he offered few details of how he had been killed. Carter said the military effort against the Islamic State was gaining momentum, repeating a claim he has made for the past three months. He said the group was steadily being drained of leaders, soldiers, and money, and was losing its grip on the parts of Iraq and Syria it has controlled.
The announcement came just three days after the Islamic State killed 31 people in a series of explosions in Brussels, showing in gruesome fashion that its abilities to conduct large-scale terrorist attacks are hardly diminished. But the week’s events could offer a glimpse of what is to come in the next year as the Islamic State and the US-led coalition to defeat it engage in a series of punches and counterpunches, with each side claiming the upper hand.
“This is going to last quite a while,” said Brian Fishman, a terrorism expert at the New America Foundation in Washington. “It’s absolutely true these guys have lost territory in Syria and Iraq. But you don’t need to control a state that size in order to train people to successfully carry out terrorist attacks in Europe.”
Although its base in Syria is being pummeled by US airstrikes, the Islamic State is not without advantages. The group has shown an ability to reach Americans over the Internet, and to inspire them to plot — and sometimes successfully launch — attacks in the United States. Recent months have shown that European cities are veined with Islamic State networks that provide money, weaponry, and false identifications for would-be attackers.
The success members of those networks have had in launching terrorist attacks has exposed weaknesses of European spy agencies — many of which appear overwhelmed by the Islamic State threat — and terrorism experts have been particularly alarmed by the bomb-making abilities of the plotters in Paris and Brussels. Nevertheless, US officials are convinced the military campaign is making progress and they have the right strategy to defeat the group.
“We’ve made a dent in the resources,” said the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph F. Dunford Jr., at the news conference with Carter. “We’ve started to affect their command and control in a negative way. I think we’ve begun to undermine the narrative. But there’s a lot of work that remains to be done.”
Secretary of State John Kerry said on Friday in Brussels, where he had traveled to demonstrate the United States’ support for Belgium three days after bombings there, that the Islamic State was desperately lashing out in Europe because its base in the Middle East is rapidly eroding.
“We will not be intimidated, we will not be deterred,” Kerry said, directly addressing Islamic State militants who have struck Paris; Ankara, Turkey; Tunis; San Bernardino, Calif.; and elsewhere. “And we will come back with greater resolve, with greater strength, and we will not rest until we have eliminated your nihilistic beliefs and cowardice from the face of this earth.”
Kerry, standing next to Prime Minister Charles Michel of Belgium, said 66 nations, including Belgium, had joined a coalition devoted to fighting the Islamic State.
“The very reason that Daesh is resorting to actions outside of the Middle East is that its fantasy of a caliphate is collapsing before their eyes,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the organization. “Its territory is shrinking every day, its leaders are being decimated, its revenue resources are dwindling, and its fighters are fleeing.”
Paul R. Pillar, a former CIA analyst who teaches at Georgetown University, said he agreed with Kerry’s assessment, saying that in recent weeks a pattern has emerged, with a rise in attacks as the Islamic State has lost territory.
The Islamic State “looks like a loser in the Middle East, so there is greater incentive to show through transnational terrorism operations that ‘Yes, we are strong and active, and can hit our enemies in the West despite all the setbacks we’ve had in Syria and Iraq,’ ” Pillar said.
The killing of al-Qaduli, who is also known as Hajji Imam, occurred at a time when the United States is accumulating increasingly more intelligence about the Islamic State and having increased success targeting the group’s leadership. US intelligence agencies are intercepting many of the group’s communications, and the CIA has developed sources in Syria and Iraq who are producing reliable information, the official said.
Defense Department officials concluded last week that US strikes had killed the group’s minister of war, Omar al-Shishani. The military has also targeted a senior Islamic State leader known as Abu Sarah, who was believed to be the group’s chief accountant and was in charge of paying the group’s fighters in northern Iraq, according to the senior military official.
“We are systematically eliminating [the Islamic State’s] Cabinet,” Carter said, adding that he did not know whether al-Qaduli had played a role in the Brussels bombings. But he made clear that killing its leaders would not by itself end the danger posed by the Islamic State.
“Striking leadership is necessary, but as you note, it’s far from sufficient,” Mr. Carter said. “Leaders can be replaced. However, these leaders have been around for a long time. They are senior, they’re experienced, and so eliminating them is an important objective and it achieves an important result. But they will be replaced and we’ll continue to go after their leadership.”
Carter said US airstrikes had also destroyed “a significant quantity of improvised explosive devices and bomb-making equipment” that could have been used against Iraqi forces as they try to reclaim the city of Mosul.
But it is hard to assess the claims by Carter, Dunford, and other senior administration officials that the military campaign is succeeding. The United States has been conducting military operations against the Islamic State for 18 months and the group still controls many major cities — including Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq. There’s little visibility into the military’s operations as the Pentagon has allowed few journalists to embed with forces in Iraq, like members of the news media did in the years after the 2003 invasion.
This is not the first time al-Qaduli is reported to have been killed. In May 2015, Iraq’s Ministry of Defense said he had been killed by US airstrikes near the northern city of Tal Afar. The Defense Ministry said at the time that “based on accurate intelligence,” al-Qaduli and other leaders who had gathered in a mosque were killed. US officials said they could not verify those claims.