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Islamic State’s most important leader is dead – what will happen now?

The US has killed Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, but the terror group remains strong.

Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, one of Islamic State’s most influential leaders, was assassinated on 30 August in a US drone strike in al-Bab, a small city north-east of Aleppo. His death comes at a difficult time for IS, which has recently lost several senior leaders, as well as territory in northern Syria.

In many respects, Adnani, the highest-ranking Syrian in the militant group, was the most important person in IS. His profile eclipsed even that of its reclusive leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Adnani made most of the group’s speeches, and it was his decision to discourage potential foreign fighters from moving to IS-controlled areas last Ramadan. He told Muslims in the West to “open the door of jihad” at home and “make examples of the crusaders . . . until every neighbour fears his neighbour”.

Police interrogation documents of arrested IS fighters in France and Germany show that Adnani was more than just the face of Islamic State’s propaganda arm. He led an internal intelligence unit known as Amni (“security”), which has two roles: to enforce internal discipline and to oversee external operations. Adnani was therefore involved in planning and giving the orders for some of IS’s worst terrorist atrocities in Europe, such as the Paris attacks in November 2015.

He had a solid jihadist pedigree. He started agitating against the Assad regime as early as 2000, then joined al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to fight Western troops in 2003. This established his warrior credentials and is the part of his story that his colleagues have stressed since his death.

“Allah honoured him with many years of jihad and [we] all know the times he and his brothers had to experience in the desert,” read an online tribute, referring to the long years that AQI spent fighting against US military forces.

The themes of warrior sacrifice and patience are pervasive in jihadist literature. Because many of its leaders lack formal religious training, the Salafi-jihadist movement places strong emphasis on praxis as a marker of religious authority, rather than scholarship, learning, or spiritual devotion. This approach empowers fighters in the field and gives them legitimacy.

Analysts have long debated the efficacy of killing terrorist leaders. Conventional wisdom suggests that ideas cannot be bombed out of existence, and the struggle against radical Islam is perhaps the best current example of this. In some instances, however, the strategy has proved highly effective.

Following the 11 September 2001 attacks, the US pursued an aggressive policy against al-Qaeda in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Many of its most powerful figures were slowly identified and then targeted in drone strikes, a process that destroyed the movement’s leadership (and killed countless civilians, too).

The killing of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011 was an important moment in the US “war on terror”. Yet what most undermined al-Qaeda was not Bin Laden’s death but that of his charismatic Yemeni-American counterpart Anwar al-Awlaki a few months later. Awlaki was linked to more than 30 terrorist plots between 2007 and 2011. Among his disciples were the so-called underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to bring down a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day in 2009, and Rosh­onara Choudhry, who stabbed the Labour MP Stephen Timms at a constituency surgery in 2010 as “punishment” for his having voted in favour of the Iraq War.

The benefits of killing Bin Laden and Awlaki are clear. Al-Qaeda has never recovered from losing two highly influential and experienced leaders in quick succession. Although control of the movement ostensibly passed smoothly to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the group has not restored its operational capacity. Even its official chapter in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, announced that it was formally severing ties with al-Qaeda in July (rebranding itself as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, meaning “the Conquest of Syria Front”).

Yet IS can weather this kind of assault ­better than al-Qaeda. Despite an onslaught on its leadership over the past 18 months, it has endured. Its ability to hold territory and invoke powerful historical resonances related to the caliphate give it a resilience that al-Qaeda never achieved.

And although IS has lost ground in some areas, it has gained others. Its fighters will continue to govern, establish redoubts and generate income. Islamic history provides an important precedent for the maintenance of the caliphate, even in the absence of the supreme leader – the caliph. When the Mongols ransacked Baghdad in 1258, they killed the last of the Abbasid caliphs, al-Musta’sim Billah. However, the military campaign against them persisted, as did the institution of the caliphate, until a new leader was appointed three years later.

It is too soon to know how the death of Adnani will impact Islamic State. No immediate successor has been announced and the group has previously operated without an official spokesman (from 2006 to 2010, when it used different names: al-Qaeda in Iraq, then Islamic State of Iraq).

For IS members, Adnani’s death has come as a source of joy. Not only has he been “martyred”, but new opportunities have arisen for those left behind. An online eulogy celebrating his passing asked: “Who knew Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Abu Muhammad al-Adnani?” – referring to their relative obscurity in the years when Osama Bin Laden led the global jihadist movement. “They were around, unknown, but waiting for their turn.”

Shiraz Maher, an NS contributing writer, is based in the department of war studies at King’s College London. His book “Salafi-Jihadism: the History of an Idea” is published by C Hurst & Co

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 08 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Three Brexiteers

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.