In a rare statement on Tuesday, the Islamic State announced that Mohammad al-Adnani, one of its most prominent and longest-serving leaders as well as the unofficial spokesman of ISIS, was killed depriving the militant group of the man in charge of directing attacks overseas. His death marks the highest-profile killing yet of an ISIS member. A key deputy to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, he was floated to be his successor should anything happen to Baghdadi, and was seen by many as the Islamic State's second in command.
In a report last December, NBC classified Adnani as America's most wanted terrorist, and the number one name on the government's kill list of ISIS leaders, say senior U.S. military and intelligence officials.
Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi may be the face of ISIS, but Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the terror group's director of external operations, is the man most likely to cause harm in the West. The U.S. wants al-Adnani dead because he's considered the author of the strategy of wanton murder that has left more than 500 dead in attacks around the world since October 10 — and apparently helped inspire last week's massacre in San Bernardino.
A statement from ISIS' Amaq news agency on Tuesday said Adnani died while inspecting military operations in the area of Aleppo. ISIS has not revealed his cause of death and said it "determined to seek revenge" for the killing. "After a journey filled with sacrifice and fight against non-believers, the Syrian Gallant knight, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, joined the convoy of martyr leaders," ISIS said.
"To the filthy and coward nonbelievers and to the holders of the Christ emblem, we bring the good news, which will keep them awake, that a new generation in the Islamic State ... that loves death more than life ... this generation will only grow steadfast on the path to Jihad, stay determined to seek revenge and be violent toward them."
Adnani was one of the last living senior members, along with self-appointed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who founded the group and stunned the Middle East by seizing huge tracts of Iraq and Syria in 2014. As Islamic State's spokesman, Adnani was its most visible member. As head of external operations, he was in charge of attacks overseas, including Europe, that have become an increasingly important tactic for the group as its core Iraqi and Syrian territory has been eroded by military losses.
The US State Department officially labeled Adnani a terrorist in August 2014 and put a $5 million bounty on his head. It described him as "the official spokesman for and a senior leader" of ISIS, a position he obtained after becoming one of the first foreign fighters to oppose U.S.-led forces in Iraq.
He was arrested in May 2005 in Anbar province and is believed to have spent some time between 2005 and 2010 at the US detention facility Camp Bucca. After his arrival in Syria, he was appointed deputy of Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani, leader of the Islamic State of Iraq for the northern province, then as the security leader before assuming a key role in external operations for ISIS, according to the UN Security Council.
The Islamic State reacted by saying his death would not harm it, and his killers would face "torment", a statement in the group's al-Naba newspaper said, according to the Site Intelligence monitoring group.
"Today, they rejoice for the killing ... and then they will cry much when Allah will overpower them, with His permission, with affliction of the worst torment by the soldiers of Abu Muhammad and his brothers," the statement said.
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But while the death was welcome news, in the latest farcical development shortly after the news, both the US and Russia began a sparring match over who was responsible for Adnani's death.
A U.S. defense official told Reuters the United States targeted Abu Muhammad al-Adnani in a Tuesday strike on a vehicle traveling in the Syrian town of al-Bab. The official stopped short of confirming Adnani's death. As CNN adds, US-led coalition forces have not confirmed his death, but the Pentagon acknowledged he was targeted in a precision strike Tuesday near Al-Bab, Syria.
Meanwhile, Russia likewise wasted no time and Russia's Ministry of Defense said on its official Facebook page that a Russian airstrike was responsible for the death of al-Adnani. Adnani was one of up to 40 ISIS militants killed by a Russian bomber in Aleppo province, the ministry said cited by CNN.
While there may be some minor diplomatic fallout over this latest snafu, the good news is that no matter who is responsible, one of the most prominent ISIS members has been eliminated.
"We are still assessing the results of the strike, but al-Adnani's removal from the battlefield would mark another significant blow to ISIS," Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said in a statement.
"Al-Adnani has served as principal architect of ISIS' external operations and as ISIS' chief spokesman. He has coordinated the movement of ISIS fighters, directly encouraged lone-wolf attacks on civilians and members of the military and actively recruited new ISIS members. The U.S. military will continue to prioritize and relentlessly target ISIS leaders and external plotters in order to defend our homeland, our allies and our partners, while we continue to gather momentum in destroying ISIL's parent tumor in Iraq and Syria and combat its metastases around the world."
As spokesman, Adnani was the group's most prominent face, the first to announce the ISIS caliphate even before Baghdadi did. But he was much more than a spokesman, CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank said. Adnani was well-known for ordering operatives to attack countries participating in the coalition against ISIS. Western intelligence believes he had command responsibility for the November 2015 Paris attacks.
He is believed to have carried out those orders as one of the ISIS leaders overseeing its security service, known as Amniyat, which includes the external operations unit tasked with international attacks on the West. As such, the external operations unit reported up to Adnani. A number of ISIS followers and members captured and questioned in the last two years, including French jihadists Faiz Bouchrane and Reda Hame, have attested to Adnani as head of the Amniyat.
"In some ways he's a more dangerous figure than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, because he's believed to be overseeing the external operations division of ISIS, and that's the part of ISIS which threatens the West, which carried out the attacks in Paris, which could one day carry out an attack in the US on a significant scale," Cruickshank said.
According to CNN's Nic Robertson, Adnani "was the mouthpiece of ISIS. He said things like, 'If you can't shoot them, then stab them, and if you can't stab them, then crush their heads with rocks. If you can't do that then drive your cars, your vehicles, to kill them." He absolutely tried to maximize every opportunity to instill fear in Syria and Iraq and the international community and send fighters overseas to attack."
Adnani said ISIS supporters in the West had a religious duty to launch lone-wolf attacks, a move analysts call a game changer that may have inspired attacks in North America, Europe and Australia. "He was the strategic leader of the organization, especially when it comes to attacks on the West," said journalist Graeme Wood, Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "To have that voice destroyed is a serious blow to the organization, probably the most significant kill that the enemies of the Islamic State have perpetrated since its declaration of the caliphate."
Some strategists have suggested that the the Islamic State's immediate response would be to organize even more deadly terrorist attacks abroad not only as retaliation but to demonstrate to the world that the void left by Adnani's death has been filled.