Pledged yesterday, confirmed today. The strike by US military forces on an ISIS convey yesterday did indeed reduce Abu Hassan al-Muhajir to room temperature, leaving ISIS without both its founder and its heir apparent. Donald Trump tweeted out the confirmation earlier this morning:
Just confirmed that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s number one replacement has been terminated by American troops. Most likely would have taken the top spot – Now he is also Dead!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 29, 2019
The New York Times also reported confirmation of Muhajir’s “demise,” as an SDF spokesperson put it:
Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) General Commander Mazloum Abdi said it was “a continuation of the previous operation” in which Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed over the weekend. Mazloum described the jihadist spokesman as Baghdadi’s right-hand man.
Muhajir was killed in the Syrian town of Jarablus in Aleppo province, said the U.S. official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity.
The operation which led to “the demise of his (Baghdadi) No. 2, or one of his No. 2s,” was also carried out by U.S. forces, the official said, adding that the SDF had a big role in it.
The caveat is worth noting here. The end of Baghdadi and now Muhajir are a huge blow to ISIS, but it’s not the end of their leadership caste either. These groups survive by distributing some authority around in order to protect other cells and columns if one gets compromised. They have other commanders who can take charge, although that process is fraught as well. If Baghdadi had a clear succession plan in place, it might not lead to a civil war within the organization, but usually terror leaders need to play subordinates off each other as a survival strategy. The sudden deaths of the two most well-known emirs will touch off a leadership fight that will also be complicated by suspicions of betrayal after two accurate and timely US/SDF missions decapitated ISIS.
Their big question might be this — Who stole Baghdadi’s panties? No, I am not kidding:
Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s underpants were obtained by an undercover source and DNA tested to prove his identity before an operation by U.S. forces to kill him, an advisor to the Syrian Democratic Forces said on Monday.
Polat Can, a senior advisor to the Kurdish-led SDF, gave details on Twitter about how SDF intelligence work had helped locate Baghdadi, whose death was announced by U.S. President Donald Trump on Sunday.
“Our own source, who had been able to reach al-Baghdadi, brought al-Baghdadi’s underwear to conduct a DNA test and make sure (100%) that the person in question was al-Baghdadi himself,” Can said.
Can we say that a panty raid brought down Baghdadi? Probably not, but we’d sure loooove to say it. Imagine, however, being the man (woman?) tasked with smuggling out the ISIS chief’s skivvies. Talk about drawing the short end of the stick for heroic-operation assignments.
More seriously, that shows just how close the US and SDF were able to get to Baghdadi without tipping him off. That kind of targeted operation will fuel more paranoia among the remaining ISIS leaders, or at least having then count their boxers before going to bed at night. Those targeted operations are still continuing, too:
The US is believed to have carried out fresh raids on suspected senior Islamic State members in Syria overnight, as officials assessed a treasure trove of intelligence gathered from Isil leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s final hideout.
Helicopters reported to be from the US-led coalition flew late on Monday night into al-Shuyukh village south of Jarablus, around three miles from a raid the previous day that killed Isil’s spokesman Abu Hassan al-Muhajir. …
A spokesman for the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is believed to have jointly conducted the mission, said there had been a “successful raid targeting and arresting senior Isil members” on Monday night without elaborating.
That might have captured some high-value intelligence targets:
“An Iraqi family had moved there in recent times,” Aghiad al-Kheder, co-founder of anti-Isil activist group Sound and Picture, told the Telegraph. “We think two men were taken away by the helicopters.”
The men’s identity, or relationship to Baghdadi, was not immediately known.
I bet they’re known to other ISIS commanders, though. The sudden success of these raids will not just stoke paranoia about who’s talking to the US, it will force the remaining leaders and assets to look for safer ground and to burn their current comms channels. At best (for ISIS), that risks months of collapse and stagnation, and at worst it will drive everyone out into the open, at least while they make their moves.
This is why the commentary about Baghdadi’s death and its long-term meaning is both accurate and missed the point. It’s true that the organization won’t collapse just from his demise, or even that of Muhajir too. It does mean that the US and SDF have gotten very good operation intel of late and appear to be rounding up a hell of a lot more as these raids succeed, however, and that might allow the US to roll up significant parts of ISIS in short order. This isn’t the end of these operations by a long shot.