The second-in-command of the Islamic State died in a U.S. airstrike near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul earlier this week in what the White House described on Friday as a blow to the group’s operations.
Fadhil Ahmad al-Hayali, who used the alias Hajji Mutaaz, is the second senior leader of the Islamist extremist group killed by the United States since May. It remains unclear, however, how much damage the losses have done as the Islamic State continues to hold huge swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria more than a year after the U.S. began efforts to crush the group.
“There’s no doubt that ISIL has proven capable of replacing leadership losses,” said a U.S. official, using one of the acronyms by which the group is known. “That said, the death of Mutazz removes a key figure from ISIL and further pierces the group’s veneer of invincibility that it has sought to cast.”
The U.S. official requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak on the issue publicly.
Hayali died when the vehicle in which he was riding was struck by U.S. aircraft on Tuesday, Ned Price, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said in a statement. Killed along with Hayali was an Islamic State media operative Price identified as Abu Abdallah.
Hayali was a member of the Islamic State’s leadership council and second-in-command to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the organization’s paramount leader. He was responsible for coordinating the movements of large amounts of ammunition, explosives, vehicles and fighters between Syria and Iraq, Price said.
He also oversaw the Islamic State’s military operations in Iraq, including the June 2014 offensive in which the group overran Mosul and stormed to the outskirts of Baghdad as much of the Iraqi army disintegrated.
“Al Hayali’s death will adversely impact ISIL’s operations given that his influence spanned ISIL’s media, operations and logistics,” Price said.
Hayali reportedly served as a colonel in military intelligence under the late dictator Saddam Hussein, who was overthrown in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. After the disbanding of the Iraqi army, he joined al Qaida in Iraq, the forerunner of the Islamic State.
His death comes three months after U.S. special forces staged a daring raid near Deir el Zour in eastern Syria and killed Abu Sayyaf, a top ISIS operative, in a firefight that erupted as he resisted capture, according to U.S. officials.
Sayyaf, according to U.S. officials, oversaw the smuggling of oil and gas, a substantial source of income for the Islamic State, and he was assuming a larger role in military operations.
The Obama administration claims that it has been making progress in its strategy to crush the Islamic State. Those efforts include leading an international coalition in airstrikes against the group in Iraq, which began on Aug. 8, 2014, and in Syria, which started just over a month later.
The United States also has been helping to rebuild Iraqi security forces and the militia of the country’s Kurdish-dominated north through training and weapons supplies, and has been training and equipping a moderate Syrian opposition force to fight the Islamic State, but that program has suffered recruiting problems and other setbacks.
Despite the U.S. effort to bolster the Iraqi army and more than a year of U.S.-led airstrikes, the Islamic State continues to control large sections of central and northern Iraq, and has withstood major U.S.-backed operations aimed at wresting back Anbar Province, the country’s largest.
Gen. Kevin Killea, chief of staff for the U.S. military operations in Iraq and Syria, told Pentagon reporters on Friday that Iraqi forces, which include Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim militias, have been making slow but steady progress toward recapturing the Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi.
“The ISF (Iraqi Security Forces) are conducting operations for multiple axes and are executing their planned scheme of maneuver,” said Killea. “It’s a difficult fight, to say the least.”
The Islamic State also has been losing ground in Syria, he said.
“ISIL fighters have been regularly targeted and killed by anti-ISIL forces and coalition airstrikes. This has led to a significant loss of physical territory and the denial of key movement corridors,” said Killea. “Not only has this impacted their ability to conduct offensive operations because they can’t command and control as well, but it has also reduced their ability to govern and control the populace of once- seized towns and cities.”
In a related development, Killea said that preliminary tests indicated the presence of a chemical agent, known as sulfur mustard, on fragments of mortar bombs fired at Kurdish militia fighters by the Islamic State near the northern town of Makhmour on Aug. 11.
U.S. officers were able to recover and test the fragments several days after the attack, Killea said.
“That is a presumptive field test and it is not conclusive, and what those results tell us is merely the presence of that chemical,” said Killea. “It is going to take us a couple of weeks to do the full testing on those fragments.”
Sulfur mustard, commonly known as mustard gas, can be fatal. It is referred to as a blistering agent because of the severe burns it causes to the eyes, respiratory system and other exposed parts of the body.
It is unknown whether the Islamic State obtained the gas from captured military stocks in Iraq or Syria or if it manufactured the substance itself.