Killing of Abu Muhammad al-Adnani silences influential Islamic State voice
Prominent Isis figure is believed to have organised Paris attacks in November 2015
Abu Muhammed al-Adnani: killed in air strike in Aleppo on Tuesday. Photograph: Militant Photo via AP
When the al-Qaeda breakaway group Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant rebranded itself two years ago as simply Islamic State, a new caliphate without borders “for Muslims everywhere”, the “creative director” for that reinvention was Abu Muhammad al-Adnani.
To mark the announcement as more than symbolic, Islamic State, also known as Isis, bulldozed a remote stretch of border between Iraq and Syria, and laid immediate claim to territory stretching from Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, to Aleppo in Syria, where, coincidentally, al-Adnani was killed on Tuesday in a US air strike.
In an audio message in July 2014, al-Adnani announced that the new “caliph” would be Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a name implying lineage from Abu Bakr, the first Muslim caliph who reigned from AD 632 to AD 634, after the death of the prophet Muhammad.
In his reincarnation as Islamic State leader, however, al-Baghdadi – sometimes known as “Caliph Ibrahim” – is cast as “a shadowy figure”, a “ruthless battlefield tactician” and “the invisible sheikh” because he rarely appears in public and wears a mask even when meeting his commanders. That persona was largely the creation of Abu Muhammad al-Adnani.
Until this week, al-Adnani, who had a $5 million bounty on his head, was the most influential voice on the Islamic State media council and also sat on the organisation’s advisory Shura Council, the only body with the power to dismiss al-Baghdadi as caliph.
What made him important enough to be targeted was that as well as being a veteran Isis “soldier”, he was a master of selling the Isis dream of an all-powerful caliphate with a global reach, which has been so successful in attracting disaffected young Muslims.
He also helped to drive Isis’s success in building on al-Qaeda’s “pioneering” use of the internet, and particularly social media, to recruit, radicalise and plan attacks.
The Syria-born al-Adnani’s management of perception was inextricably linked with the carefully calibrated use of extreme violence, the application of which is set out in the al-Qaeda jihadist bible, The Management of Savagery.
To anyone who has ever asked why in response to Isis atrocities, that document – which trains jihadists and “lone wolves” in the psychological importance of fear as a weapon – contains the answer.
Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s twin priorities were “fear” and “good media goals”.
He is believed to have had command responsibility for the Paris attacks in November 2015, and his call for action against the US and Europe during Ramadan this year was followed by the Orlando nightclub shootings, the Nice truck killings and a massive suicide bomb in Baghdad.
So, in some ways, al-Adnani was a more important figure in Isis than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
His killing – confirmed by the Isis-affiliated Amaq News Agency and claimed by Russia yesterday (though this claim was subsequently dismissed by the US) – is unlikely to cause any immediate change in Isis’s operational or propaganda strategies.
However, in the longer term his absence could make both strategies less driven, less sharp, less responsive and less innovative. That, at least, is what intelligence agencies and governments in the West will be hoping.