The second-in-command of Islamic State was killed by a U.S. airstrike on Aug. 18 while traveling in a vehicle near Mosul, Iraq, according to a White House statement.
Fadhil Ahmad al-Hayali, the senior deputy to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, “was a primary coordinator for moving large amounts of weapons, explosives, vehicles and people between Iraq and Syria,” National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in the statement Friday.
The effect of his death on the group’s operations is apt to be limited, however, because Islamic State has developed a “deep bench” of military leaders, said Harleen Gambhir, a counterterrorism analyst who focuses on Islamic State at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.
Islamic State, also known by the acronym ISIS, has shown the ability to recover swiftly from the loss of key leaders, Gambhir said in an interview.
“I would not necessarily equate his actual stature within the organization as a sign necessarily that this will deal a significant blow to ISIS simply because, over the course of the past year, ISIS has grown both its military and its governance infrastructures such that it has a deep bench to be able to sustain a blow like this,” she said.
“If anything, we might see a short operational pause with ISIS’s operations in Iraq because of this death, but I find even that to be a bit doubtful” since the group has shown an ability to “implement very robust transition strategies for its senior military commanders,” she said.
Al-Hayali, also known by the nom de guerre Hajji Mutazz, supported Islamic State operations in both Syria and Iraq and was in charge of the group’s military operations in Iraq, where he was instrumental in planning operations, including the group’s June 2014 takeover of Mosul, according to Price.
The announcement follows apparently erroneous reports by U.S. officials in November that airstrikes had killed al-Hayali, who had been an officer in Iraq’s military under Saddam Hussein and later joined al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The Aug. 18 airstrike also killed an Islamic State media operative known as Abu Abdullah, according to Price.
Al-Hayali’s death “will adversely impact” Islamic State actions given that his influence “spanned its finance, media, operations, and logistics,” Price said.
With few exceptions, though, leaders in terrorist organizations such as Islamic State are quickly replaced from within the group’s own ranks. Previously, there have been unconfirmed reports that Islamic State leader al-Baghdadi was seriously wounded during airstrikes in March.
The U.S. is seeking to hit the organization’s leadership, even as it uses airstrikes to pick off military assets. In May, U.S. Special Forces staged as raid in Syria after getting intelligence on the location of a top Islamic State financier.
The man the U.S. called Abu Sayyaf -- identified as a leader of the group’s oil, gas and financial operations -- was killed along with about a dozen other militants, administration officials said at the time.
It’s possible that intelligence gathered in that raid may have been useful in targeting al-Hayali, said Gambhir.
Despite more than 5,500 airstrikes since August 8, 2014 that have killed an estimated 15,000 Islamic State fighters, the group still has 20,000 to 31,500 fighters as new recruits flow into the region.
“While the air strikes may have weakened the Islamic State, they will not be able to eradicate it,” Lina Khatib of the Carnegie Middle East Center wrote on June 29. “The group has a long-term goal and it is counting on Syria’s descent into a failed state in order to raise a new generation of loyalists.”
“Ultimately,” she said, “the way to eradicate the Islamic State is not by conducting military strikes alone, but by cutting its two main lifelines: grievances in Iraq and the Syrian conflict.”