Middle East

Killing top ISIS leaders won’t cripple group: experts

Kurdish peshmerga fighters look at the bodies of Islamic State (IS) fighters in Zumar, Nineveh province December 18, 2014. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

PARIS: The Pentagon has hailed the deaths of several top leaders of ISIS, but experts say this is far from enough to cripple what has proven to be a resilient organization.

U.S. officials say airstrikes have killed several senior and mid-level jihadis including Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, the right hand man of ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, dealing a serious blow to the group’s operations.

But analysts warn that disruptions of this type are often fleeting and that the U.S.-led coalition needs to look beyond its military campaign to weaken the group that has become the world’s most feared jihadi organization since proclaiming a “caliphate” straddling Syria and Iraq six months ago.

“Eliminating key leaders is a means to disrupt plots and degrade capabilities. But they do not defeat or destroy terrorist organizations,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA agent and adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama who is now a leading terrorism expert.

“Al-Qaeda in Iraq lost its top leadership twice but still thrived sufficiently to give birth to the Islamic State,” he said, using the group’s latest name.

Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said strikes against the group’s leadership were disrupting the jihadis’ “ability to command and control current operations against” Iraqi federal and Kurdish forces.

But the real impact is hard to quantify, especially as the command structure of ISIS is largely a mystery to intelligence services, with its members masters at disguising themselves through a multitude of false identities, nicknames and noms de guerre.

And the Western view of a pyramid-like command structure with a supreme leader, deputies and cascading line of subordinates does not take into account a reality where tribal, regional, cultural and historical ties often take precedence. Even if jihadi leader Baghdadi was killed, this would not see the ideology that spurred the creation of the so-called caliphate crumble overnight.

“If Baghdadi is out of the picture before his caliphate is firmly established, the Islamic State group will be seriously challenged, but with resourceful lieutenants in charge, it will not be finished without a further fight,” said Michael Ryan of the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation.

U.S. officials have been open about the limits of the military operation and have warned the West will have to dig in for the long haul to combat ISIS.

Military chief Gen. Martin Dempsey recently told the U.S. Senate that ISIS would “ultimately be defeated when their cloak of religious legitimacy is stripped away and the population on which they have imposed themselves reject them.

“Our actions are intended to move in that direction. This will require a sustained effort over an extended period of time. It is a generational problem, and we should expect that our enemies will adapt their tactics as we adjust our approach.”

On the ground Friday, sporadic clashes between Iraqi Kurdish fighters and ISIS extremists, as well as other logistics problems, delayed the evacuation of the last Yazidis still trapped on Mt. Sinjar, an Iraqi lawmaker said.

Fighting was still underway near the mountain, said Mahma Khalil, himself a member of Iraq’s minority Yazidis. He said the need to plan and prepare for logistics and transportation contributed to the delay.

However, Khalil said Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters were able to ease the plight of the thousands of Yazidis still trapped on Mt. Sinjar and delivered food and supplies to them.

It followed the peshmerga’s advances Thursday, when they managed to retake some ground lost last summer to ISIS militants and opened up a corridor to the mountain. The development was an incremental step in the battle to retake the town of Sinjar, at the foothills of the mountain by the same name, which fell to ISIS in early August.

The Kurdish peshmerga troops, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, launched the operation to retake Sinjar Wednesday. “The situation of these trapped people is better now, with the fresh supplies and we hope to evacuate them as soon as possible,” Khalil told the Associated Press.

In Syria, Nawaf Khalil, a spokesman for the powerful Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), said that Syrian-Kurdish militiamen also were able to open up another corridor between their region of northeastern Syria and Mt. Sinjar in neighboring Iraq. The Syrian-Kurdish fighters also captured nine villages from ISIS militants, he said.

In August, ISIS militants captured the Iraqi towns of Sinjar and Zumar, prompting tens of thousands of Yazidis to flee to the mountain, where they became trapped. Many were eventually airlifted and escorted across a passageway through Syria back into Iraq, where they found refuge in Iraq’s northern Kurdish semi-autonomous region. But thousands remained stuck on the mountain.

In Baghdad, authorities said bombings killed 11 people.

Police officials say the deadliest attack happened Friday morning when a bomb exploded near a market in Baghdad’s northern district of Shaab, killing four people and wounding nine others.

Later on, a bomb blast at a commercial street in eastern Baghdad killed two people and wounded eight others. In downtown Baghdad, a bomb went off near car repair shops, killing two people.

Police said a bomb blast near an industrial area killed three people and wounded seven others in Bayaa district in western Baghdad.

Medics in a nearby hospital confirmed the casualty figures. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 20, 2014, on page 1.

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