Death of a Spokesman: What Adnani's Death Means for ISIS

Global Challenges Counter-extremism

Death of a Spokesman: What Adnani's Death Means for ISIS

Posted on: 1st September 2016
Milo Comerford
Former Senior Analyst, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change

The killing of ISIS propagandist-in-chief Abu Mohammad al-Adnani in an apparent US airstrike in Aleppo is the most prominent scalp in the three-year air campaign against the jihadi group.

ISIS social media channels are alight with mourning at his 'martyrdom.' After all, it was Adnani that announced the declaration of the ISIS 'Caliphate' in June 2014, before the group's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi climbed the steps to the pulpit of the Great Mosque in Mosul, demanding the allegiance of the global Muslim community. Supporters are right to grieve. Although he will hastily be replaced, with the death of this prominent leader, propagandist and strategist, ISIS is running out of big names.

But what are the wider implications of Adnani's death, and why was he important to ISIS? A recent CRG comparative study of jihadi propaganda showed the centrality of Adnani, ISIS' official spokesman, to its industrial propaganda machine. He constituted the charismatic counterpart to Baghdadi's shadowy and elusive persona.

Adnani's origins in Idlib likely helped galvanise support for ISIS in Syria.

Adnani's focus on the 'near enemy,' using sectarian rhetoric to paint a picture of inevitable conflict between Sunni and Shia, as well as his frequent dispatches from the front line across Syria and Iraq, were offset by his internationalist calls to arms, encouraging lone attackers to target civilians in the 62 countries committed to eradicating ISIS. His origins in Idlib likely helped to galvanise popular support (or acquiescence) for ISIS in Syria, a group largely perceived on the ground as being foreign invaders in a domestic conflict.

Our research into the backgrounds of prominent militants, showed many features of Adnani's life which were typical of the upper echelons of the global jihadi movement; he was well educated, a jihadi internationalist, had fought for multiple outfits, and spent time imprisoned with fellow ideologues.

Adnani was a veteran of regional jihad, predating the thousands of foreign fighters and former-Baathist forces that now form the core of ISIS. ISIS biographies show Adnani joining the outfit of notorious militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi before the 2003 Iraq war, an organisation which would go on to become al-Qaida in Iraq and eventually ISIS. His imprisonment in Iraq for up to six years likely galvanised his worldview and brought him under Baghdadi's wing.

One account even recorded Adnani as briefly being the emir of Jabhat al-Nusra in Idlib, Syria, after the group was created as a vanguard for ISIS' Syrian operations in 2012. However, a falling out with leader Mohammad al-Jolani (who recently dropped his group's ties to al-Qaeda) resulted in Adnani's appointment as ISIS' emir (commander) in Syria. The rival jihadi groups have been alternately fighting with, and against, each other for three years.

Adnani: 'Do you think, O America, that victory is by killing one leader or another?'

Alongside his jihadi lineage, ISIS' announcement of Adnani's death also emphasised his religious credentials, describing him as a Quraysh, descended from the tribe of Mohammad Husain, like Baghdadi himself. Previous ISIS accounts have painted a picture of a pious boy who memorised the Quran before being influenced by the works of Egyptian Islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutb, as well as Salafi exegesis of scripture.

Analysts will focus on what Adnani's death means for ISIS' on-going plight in Iraq and Syria, as well as its 'provinces' further afield. The group are militarily on the back foot, suffering territorial losses of more than half of the cities under its one-time control, and its leadership has been decimated by the US-led air campaign. But the wave of recent attacks across Europe shows the purchase of the group's destructive worldview outside the areas where it is being militarily contested. Adnani himself reflected this new extremism paradigm, characterised by external ops and an external-facing propaganda effort.

History has taught as that killing leaders is not in itself enough to undermine the foundational cohesion of militant groups. It can even act to redouble support and create a dangerous backs-against-the-wall spirit, seen in the recent surge of violence in Afghanistan that accompanied the appointment of the Taliban's new leader.

There is truth in a line from Adnani's final speech, which also appeared to foreshadow his own demise: "Do you think, O America, that victory is by killing one leader or another?" While important in detracting from jihadi groups' claims of military success against the odds, Osama Bin Laden's assassination had little impact in stemming a renewed, and increasingly global, Islamist extremist narrative.

Instead, attempts to decimate the ranks of senior leadership should be accompanied by robust efforts to address the appeal of the ISIS message, and undermine the credibility of its ideology. Adnani understood the appeal of communicating a cohesive and compelling worldview; ISIS' opponents should place an even greater emphasis on its attempts to rebut it.

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