Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, one of Islamic State’s longest-serving and most prominent leaders, has been killed in Syria, the group’s Amaq News Agency reported.
The group’s spokesman was killed “while surveying the operations to repel the military campaigns against Aleppo”, Amaq said on Tuesday. Isis holds territory in the province of Aleppo, but not in the city where rebels are fighting Syrian government forces.
Amaq did not say how Adnani was killed. Isis published a eulogy dated 29 August but gave no further details.
The death is a major blow to Isis. Drone strikes and attrition by other means have cut deep into the senior ranks of the organisation, and very few of the original leadership remain alive.
Senior leaders are difficult to replace, even if some capable commanders remain, and this new casualty underlines the degree to which Isis has been put under pressure in recent months. The group is losing territory, financial resources and key personnel.
Adnani, believed to have been about 40, is a particularly significant loss. The veteran militant was the author of a series of declarations and speeches over four years which, particularly over the past 18 months, had gained a significant audience. He was often the face of the militant group, such as when he issued a message in May urging attacks on the United States and Europe during the holy month of Ramadan.
His diatribes were known for their mix of blood-curdling calls to arms that western intelligence officials credit with inspiring a series of lone actors and sympathisers to launch murderous attacks. They also outlined a historical narrative which explained Isis campaigns as the final stages of a millennial battle against apostates and unbelievers.
But Adnani also had a key operational role, heading up the “external operations department” of Isis. This was tasked with the international strikes that have killed hundreds in the 26 months since Isis seized the Iraqi city of Mosul and declared the new caliphate, with its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the new caliph. Adnani oversaw a series of operational commands based in Syria and Iraq, which targeted countries around the Islamic world and Europe through the use of Isis recruits from those nations.
A former mason from Idlib province in Syria whose real name was Taha Subhi Falaha, Adnani was a veteran of the Islamic insurgency in the region. He first fought alongside the founders of the group that would evolve into Isis in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Incarcerated for several years and released around 2010 as Isis began its brutally effective campaign to carve out a new enclave in Iraq, Adnani rose rapidly through its ranks.
Several analysts have suggested that Adnani was being groomed as a potential successor to Baghdadi. A series of photographs showing the spokesman lecturing, holding meetings with commanders and overseeing the training of recruits was published by Isis over recent months in an apparent bid to boost his profile and credibility.
We can now expect a cult of martyrdom to build around “Sheikh Adnani”, with descriptions of how his body was untouched by the blast or bullets which killed him, and smelt of musk. Such references have been part of the Islamic militant tradition since the days of the war in Afghanistan against the Soviets in the 1980s.
They will not however compensate Isis for the loss of a key operative, nor obscure the strain the group is under.
Recent advances by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias, and by Syrian rebels backed by Turkey, have made inroads into Isis holdings in Aleppo province, cutting them off from the Turkish border and supply lines along it.
Iraq said in January that Adnani had been wounded in an airstrike in the western province of Anbar and then moved to the northern city of Mosul, the group’s capital in Iraq.
Adnani had been the chief propagandist for the ultra-hardline terrorist group since he declared in a June 2014 statement that it was establishing a modern-day caliphate spanning large swaths of territory it had seized in Iraq and neighbouring Syria.