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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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”