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The Coalition announced yesterday that it had killed eight Islamic State (IS) “leaders involved in directing external operations, as well as bomb-making, directed at regional and Western targets”.
The Coalition killed “an ISIS explosives specialist”, Abu Futtum, and an associate of his, in an airstrike on 13 July near Mayadeen. “As a bomb maker, Futtum was a part of ISIS’ network that instructs and incites others to take the same destructive actions, encouraging lone wolf attacks across the globe using homemade explosives”, the Coalition noted.
A Coalition airstrike near al-Bukamal on 24 July killed Abd al-Ghafur, “a Syria-based ISIS external operations official”, and an associate. Abd al-Ghafur’s “assistant”, Abu Hammam, and three other IS members were killed by a Coalition airstrike 16 July near Deir Ezzor city. Abd al-Ghafur and Abu Hammam “were responsible for managing and directing external operations attacks”; they were “well-connected members with links to trans-regional terror support networks” and had “participated in attack plotting against the Middle East and Western targets”.
The Coalition also targeted a series of IS operatives from the areas of former Jugoslavija who were “operating in Syria as … recruiters, facilitators and attack plotters, responsible for multiple atrocities within Syria”. The crucial figure is Lavdrim Muhaxheri (Abu Abdullah al-Kosova), an ethnic Albanian and the “self-proclaimed leader of ISIS foreign fighters from Kosovo”. Muhaxheri was cut down by an airstrike near Mayadeen on 7 June.
The Balkans has had a jihadi problem back to the early 1990s when al-Qaeda and Iran’s revolutionary government laid down infrastructure during the Bosnian war. This area of southeastern Europe has also been a zone of concern during the Syrian crisis because of the jihadist logistics, supply, and recruitment networks that run through it. Kosovo, specifically, has donated volunteers to the jihad in the fertile crescent at an alarming relative rate. But the government in Pristina has taken effective measures to counter some of the negative trends that were, rather too simplistically, blamed on the spread of “Wahhabism”, a component of IS’s ideology but only one.
The Coalition statement describes Muhaxheri as “the most prominent and radical ethnic Albanian fighter in Syria [who] was directly responsible for inciting jihadist ideology within European communities and encouraging foreign fighters to travel to ISIS-controlled territory. He was also responsible for planning numerous terrorist attacks”.
Muhaxheri, born in Kacanc on 12 March 1989, went to Syria in late 2012 and joined Jabhat al-Nusra (now known as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham), which was at the time a secret wing of IS led by the caliph’s deputy, Samir al-Khlifawi (Haji Bakr) and some key local and foreign operatives, notably Amr al-Absi (Abu al-Atheer) and Tarkhan Batirashvili (Abu Umar al-Shishani).
Muhaxheri was sanctioned as a terrorist by the U.S. State Department in September 2014, alongside al-Absi. Muhaxheri had gained some notoriety in July 2014 for two separate events. First, Muhaxheri appeared in a video where he destroyed his passport and promised a globe-spanning revolution against unbelievers, starting with Western-allied governments in the region, Saudi Arabia in particular. Second and more salient was Muhaxheri disseminating pictures of himself on social media posing with the decapitated corpse of a young Alawi soldier.
Muhaxheri was reported to have been killed by the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga in August 2014. Subsequently, in May 2015, a video surfaced in which Muhaxheri murdered a man bound to a post by blowing him up with a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). The man Muhaxheri murdered was from the Shaytat tribe that rose against IS as it conquered Deir Ezzor. The Shaytat rebellion was pitilessly crushed and seven-hundred people were slaughtered amid near-total silence from the West, a source of bitterness down the present, especially because the plight of minorities like the Yazidis proved to be so galvanic for Western governments.
It was not completely clear that Muhaxheri’s reappearance proved he was still alive: it could have been old footage. Confirmation that Muhaxheri was still alive came from arrests in Italy in November 2015 that were connected back to Muhaxheri and arrests exactly a year later by the Kosovar government. The two-dozen men rounded up in Kosovo were planning to massacre Israeli footballers in the country at the time to play a World Cup qualifier. Pristina uncovered links to Muhaxheri and another Kosovar Albanian in IS, Ridvan Haqifi, who were guiding the plot.
The reports of Muhaxheri’s demise in June were prompt and soon validated by his family, who received the call from IS.
The Coalition also announced that it had struck down “four senior ISIS associates of Muhaxheri”. Orhan Ramadani was “responsible for actively planning external terror attacks from Syria” when a Coalition airstrike destroyed him near Mayadeen on 21 May. Muhaxheri’s “deputy”, Irfan Hafiqi, also an ethnic Albanian, recruited from the Balkans, moved such loyalists into Syria, and engaged in plotting foreign attacks. Hafiqi was killed near Qayira on 7 June. The next week, on 16 June, an airstrike near Mayadeen killed Razim Kastrati, an “ISIS external terror attack coordinator” and five other IS jihadists. In addition to plotting external attacks, Kastrati was involved in facilitating the movement of jihadists from southeastern Europe to Syria, and training them. In “late June”, Jetmir Ismaili, an “ISIS external terror attack planner” with “key connections with ISIS external terror attack planners in Europe and Syria”, a man who “personally planned and coordinated external ISIS terror attacks”, was killed in Raqqa.
PART OF A TREND
Half of those named here were killed near Mayadeen, downriver from Raqqa city, where IS moved the bulk of its administrative staff in February and evidently significant parts of the foreign terrorism apparatus that remotely guides the attacks around the world that are often mislabeled as “lone wolf” incidents. A wave of targeted strikes by the Coalition from the beginning of the year has eliminated a number of propagandist-recruiters and external terrorism planners and directors; a significant portion of them were killed in and around Mayadeen.