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The Orton Report
Iraqi security forces and Shia militias in Tikrit, 1 April 2015, AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE
October 9, 2016

Analysis: ‘Coalition Prepares the Ground for Mosul Offensive’

by
Kyle Orton

Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) is an activist group working from within the capital of the Islamic State (or so-called capital of the so-called Islamic State, if you prefer) to bring news to the outside world of the horrors therein. For this they have paid a heavy price. On 22 September, RBSS published a list on Twitter of eighteen Islamic State (IS) operatives who had been killed by the U.S.-led Coalition between 20 August and 21 September 2016. This list, presented below with some notes and context, shows the preparations being made for the rapidly-approaching offensive on IS’s Iraqi capital.

Propaganda

Probably the most important figure named by RBSS is Wael al-Fayad (Dr. Wael al-Rawi), the “Information Minister and member of the Shura Council,” IS’s executive body, who was struck down by a Coalition drone near Raqqa on 7 September. Al-Fayad’s position as “Information Minister” means he was the head up the Media Council. (For a full breakdown of IS’s Councils see here; for a full profile of al-Fayad see here.)

It is noteworthy that the day before, on 6 September, a Coalition drone strike had killed Abu Harith al-Lami, who was responsible for IS’s media-propaganda output inside the caliphate in Iraq and Syria. RBSS leaves off their list Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani), the caliph’s deputy, who was killed on 30 August. Falaha also served as the governor of Syria, the head of foreign terrorist operations, and—most important in this context—spokesman.

When the proto-caliphate was taking shape in 2006, its first spokesman was Abu Maysara al-Iraqi, who was also the deputy of the Media Department. Abu Maysara and the head of the Media Department seem to have been killed in quick succession in 2006. The next year their successors as spokesman (Muharib al-Jibouri) and media chief (Khalid al-Mashadani) were killed and arrested, respectively, in a short span of time.

The recurrence of the pattern with Falaha and al-Fayad is curious, to say the least, and suggests a common American operating method has breached IS’s defences. Abu Harith’s demise adds to the suggestion of compromise at senior levels of IS, at the very least within the Media Council.

Foreign Terrorism

Muhammad Ahmed al-Jassim (Abu Suhayb al-Iraqi) was killed by a Coalition airstrike on 20 August. Al-Jassim’s role—forging documents to facilitate IS foreign fighters moving into Europe to carry out terrorist attacks against the West—indicates that he was killed in Syria, though this is far from certain: external operations operatives have been killed in Iraq.

According to RBSS, IS’s ability to move external operatives has been complicated by al-Jassim’s demise. It has surely been further complicated by Turkey having intervened directly in Syria on 24 August, and closed the Turkey-Syria border to IS on 4 September.

Tarad al-Jarba (Abu Muhammad al-Shimali), one of the handful of IS members still alive who as in the organization in its founding incarnation, is believed to serve as IS’s “border emir,” and he at least was in northern Syria. This likely means the previous “borders governor,” Rathwan al-Hamdani (Abu Jurnas), is dead.

Softening Up Mosul

It is very noticeable that the vast majority—fifteen of eighteen—slain IS mid- and upper-level operatives RBSS names among slain have been killed in the vicinity of Mosul, IS’s Iraqi capital, where a U.S.-backed operation to liberate the city is likely to begin before the end of the month.

Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs)

The loss of Abu Muhammad al-Hiyali (Abu Tayba) on 5 September near Mosul removed from IS a man involved in training, militarily and with explosives, operatives to be sent abroad to commit terrorist attacks in Europe and America, but it also damaged the IED manufacturing network inside the caliphate. Abu Anas al-Srouj, who ran a factory for the creation of car bombs, was killed near Mosul in a drone strike on 6 September.

IEDs are a crucial weapon in IS’s ability to inflict heavy casualties in urban areas with only a minimal presence. IS exercises strict force-preservation in the face of overwhelming fire-power, pulling the bulk of its troops from towns quickly and leaving behind a skeleton force—there are believed to be at most 4,500 IS jihadists in Mosul (pre-war population: two million)—that works with snipers and suicide bombers from behind layered defences: barbed wire, trenches, IED minefields, ignitable oil moats, and booby-trapped houses.

Chemical Weapons

The Coalition killed Naji Abdullah al-Jibouri (Abu Jannat) on 11 September, a deputy military emir south of Mosul who was among those responsible for organizing the defence of the city, specifically in al-Jibouri’s case by directing the use of chemical weapons of mass destruction (CWMD).

A systematic effort has been made by the Coalition to cripple IS’s CWMD infrastructure ahead of the Mosul operation.

Logistics

The Coalition has battered IS’s logistics around Mosul.

One of the senior members of the Finance Bureau, Akram al-Jarjari, was killed on 18 September near Mosul in a drone strike. Al-Jarjari was close to Abd al-Rahman al-Qaduli (Abu Ali al-Anbari), the caliph’s deputy and the chief religious official of the caliphate when he was killed in March, who was also described as IS’s “Finance Minister”. In combination with the killing of Fathi al-Tunisi (Abu Sayyaf al-Iraqi) in a U.S. raid into Syria in May 2015 and the possible death of Muwaffaq al-Ramoush (Abu Saleh) in November 2015, it is unclear who heads IS’s finance portfolio at this stage.

Military commander Abu Yahya al-Iraqi was killed by a Coalition airstrike near Qayyarah on 25 August. One of Abu Yahya’s jobs was distributing fighters around the battlefield and his fall has damaged IS’s ability to move the manpower it needs to where it needs to prepare Mosul for the impending offensive. Abu Ahmed al-Amara led the Muta Battalion, which oversees security in eastern Mosul, and he was additionally “responsible for fuel distribution” before he was killed in a drone strike east of Mosul on 13 September.

The man responsible for protecting IS’s communications, which allows the organization to coordinate the defence of Mosul, Abu Hussam, was killed on 27 August.

Nasim Abbas Juma, “responsible for military support and logistics in Tal Afar,” was killed on 20 September in a drone strike.

One of IS’s chief logisticians, Muhammad Hamid al-Dulaymi (Abu Hajer al-Sufi), the General Coordinator of Provinces, was rumoured killed in 2014, but there has never been any confirmation. Al-Dulaymi’s job was effectively the chief courier, transferring messages non-electronically between the provincial leaderships. These messages include requests for resources. Even if al-Dulaymi is dead, there will by now be a replacement.

The chief logistician is Fares Rayf al-Nayma (Abu Shema), who is also a member of the Military Council. Al-Nayma is charged with protecting and distributing IS’s resources from the warehouses to where they are needed.

Military

The Coalition airstrikes have killed a series of IS military officials.

On 1 September, Abu Hadi al-Zanoun was killed by a Coalition airstrike near Tal Afar. Abu Hadi was the security chief of the IS Jazeera Province that spans western Iraq and eastern Syria.

The deputy military commander south of Mosul, Abu Khatab, was killed by a drone strike in the area on 2 September.

A U.S. drone strike killed Ali Mahmoud al-Yacoub (Ali Hammoud or Abu Aisha) near Tal Afar on 11 September, he having been the chief administrator and security commander in nearby Abu Marea.

Abu Jaber al-Shishani, a Chechen, was killed on 19 September in northern Iraq, where he was the “administrator of the Jund al-Aqsa Battalion,” a unit of IS that is not to be confused with the Qaeda-linked group in Syria. Just prior to that, on 17 September, another member of Jund al-Aqsa Battalion had been killed in the same area in a drone strike, an emir named Abdul Rahman al-Shishani, who also had a military leadership role in Mosul. According to the Pentagon, which released a list not-dissimilar to RBSS’s on 29 September, another Chechen member of IS was killed in the same area over the same time-period, Abdul Hamid al-Shishani.

The Chechens were the first major group of foreign volunteers to join IS, moving from refugee camps in Turkey to northern Syria in early 2012. The most salient individual was Tarkhan Batirashvili (Abu Umar al-Shishani), a Shura and Military Council member whom the Coalition claim was IS’s “War Minister” when he was killed on 10 July near Shirqat by the Coalition. On 25 June, the Coalition killed Basim al-Bajari near Mosul, whom it named as an al-Qaeda veteran and IS’s “Deputy Minister of War”.

During this period, media close to the Iraqi government has also claimed that, on 25 September, it arrested IS’s governor of Shirqat, Abu Umar al-Assafi.

Non-Military

Two further officials were listed by RBSS who had contributed to the functioning of IS’s statelet.

On 21 August, a Coalition airstrike near Mosul killed Abu Bakr, emir of the military police in eastern Mosul, and by RBSS’s account an effective leader and maintainer of discipline as pressure builds on the caliphate.

On 10 September, a Coalition airstrike killed Wissam Ismail al-Sabawi south of Mosul. Al-Sabawi was a judge known for passing sentences that led to many executions.

Conclusion

In its 29 September statement, the U.S. Defence Department acknowledged that many of those killed here “are mid-value individuals,” but insisted “they’re very, very important to a local network.” There is good reason to think this is true.

The strategy of decapitation has likely reached diminishing-returns, and may have unintended consequences that allow IS’s leaders to embed further into the societies they are tyrannizing. It is, for IS as for al-Qaeda before it, “the middle managers who provide the connective tissue that links the top of the organization with its bottom and, thus, makes it possible … to function as a coherent and operationally effective entity,” and it appears to be the middle managers that the Coalition has been targeting.

There are still serious reasons for doubt about the timing of this operation.

The primary concerns are political, most immediately about the role Iran and its proxies will play, not just during the offensive but in the aftermath and the help that might provide in setting conditions for IS’s revival. At present the Iran-backed militia umbrella, al-Hashd al-Shabi, is “not expected to have a direct role” in the city during the offensive, but the U.S.—which has potentially decisive leverage—has not been forceful, even rhetorically, in ensuring this. Since the U.S. administration conceives of the military defeat of IS as the primary objective, it allows statements like the one on 6 October from the State Department: these militias, said the spokesman, regarded as sectarian by Sunnis, have been and “continue to be useful” against IS, and the U.S. was not going to “get ahead of campaign planning” in ruling the Hashd out of the Mosul operation. The Hashd says it certainly will participate, and it is difficult to see politically how they could do otherwise. Even if they were kept out of the offensive, there is nothing to stop them moving in afterwards. With the Hashd’s inclusion, and its previous behaviour, “‘liberation’ might then be confused for ‘subjugation’,” as Rasha al-Aqeedi, an Iraq researcher and Mosul native, recently put it in a beautiful recent essay on her complicated hometown.

The most serious question is why the Coalition retains its Iraq-first focus when Syria is, in terms of IS, both an easier target—IS is not as entrenched in Syria as it is in Iraq—and more significant, politically and immediately: with Raqqa’s fall, the caliphate is gone, IS’s recruitment-power diminished, and its ability to wage foreign terrorist attacks curtailed. But IS isn’t the only, or even the most urgent, jihadism problem in Syria. Iran’s foreign Shi’a jihadists are constructing a base unopposed and the narrow counter-terrorism measures against al-Qaeda in Syria are woefully insufficient when the organization can feed on the pro-Assad coalition devastating the mainstream opposition and assaulting Aleppo’s population with impunity.

There are also logistical factors to worry about. Estimates that more than a million people will be displaced during the fighting are overwrought—that would be the entire remaining population—but the operation does come just as the cold is setting in, and aid agencies in northern Iraq are under severe strain. The plan is to prepare facilities for 700,000 IDPs, but at present there are only enough for 120,000, with potentially 100,000 IDPs to deal with before the Mosul operation as Hawija is cleared. Meanwhile, Qayyarah and Shirqat, ostensibly-liberated staging posts for Mosul, are under constant harrying attacks. Offensives are much more difficult when safety behind-the-lines is not guaranteed.

Still, from a purely tactical-military perspective, it does seem that preparations for expelling IS from Mosul are approaching complete.