American Special Operations forces in eastern Syria killed a top Islamic State commander this week, Pentagon officials said Friday, part of a monthslong campaign the Obama administration boasts is eviscerating the Islamic State even as the group continues to demonstrate the power to sow violence in Western Europe.
The American forces originally hoped to capture the commander, Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, and were following his vehicle in at least two helicopters, according to a senior military official who requested anonymity. But their plan to land Special Operations fighters, seize Mr. Qaduli and return him to the helicopter changed for unknown reasons, and they fired on the vehicle instead, killing him.
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter announced Mr. Qaduli’s death, describing him as the group’s top financier, but he offered few details of how he had been killed. Mr. Carter said the military effort against the Islamic State was gaining momentum, repeating a claim he has made for the past three months. He said the group was steadily being drained of leaders, soldiers and money, and was losing its grip on the parts of Iraq and Syria it has controlled.
The announcement came just three days after the Islamic State killed 31 people in a series of explosions in Brussels, showing in gruesome fashion that its abilities to conduct large-scale terrorist attacks are hardly diminished. But the week’s events could offer a glimpse of what is to come in the next year as the Islamic State and the United States-led coalition to defeat it engage in a series of punches and counterpunches, with each side claiming the upper hand.
“This is going to last quite a while,” said Brian Fishman, a terrorism expert at the New America Foundation in Washington. “It’s absolutely true these guys have lost territory in Syria and Iraq. But you don’t need to control a state that size in order to train people to successfully carry out terrorist attacks in Europe.”
Although its base in Syria is being pummeled by American airstrikes, ISIS is not without advantages. The group has shown an ability to reach Americans over the Internet, and to inspire them to plot — and sometimes successfully launch — attacks in the United States. Recent months have shown that European cities are veined with ISIS networks that provide money, weaponry and false identifications for would-be attackers.
The success members of those networks have had in launching terrorist attacks has exposed weaknesses of European spy agencies — many of which appear overwhelmed by the ISIS threat — and terrorism experts have been particularly alarmed by the bomb-making abilities of the plotters in Paris and Brussels. Nevertheless, American officials are convinced the military campaign is making progress and they have the right strategy to defeat the group.
“We’ve made a dent in the resources,” said the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., at the news conference with Mr. Carter. “We’ve started to affect their command and control in a negative way. I think we’ve begun to undermine the narrative. But there’s a lot of work that remains to be done.”
Secretary of State John Kerry said on Friday in Brussels, where he had traveled to demonstrate the United States’ support for Belgium three days after bombings there, that the Islamic State was desperately lashing out in Europe because its base in the Middle East is rapidly eroding.
“We will not be intimidated, we will not be deterred,” Mr. Kerry said, directly addressing Islamic State militants who have struck Paris; Ankara, Turkey; Tunis; San Bernardino, Calif.; and elsewhere. “And we will come back with greater resolve, with greater strength, and we will not rest until we have eliminated your nihilistic beliefs and cowardice from the face of this earth.”
Kerry, standing next to Prime Minister Charles Michel of Belgium, said that 66 nations, including Belgium, had joined a coalition devoted to fighting the Islamic State.
“The very reason that Daesh is resorting to actions outside of the Middle East is that its fantasy of a caliphate is collapsing before their eyes,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the organization. “Its territory is shrinking every day, its leaders are being decimated, its revenue resources are dwindling, and its fighters are fleeing.”
Paul R. Pillar, a former C.I.A. analyst who teaches at Georgetown University, said that he agreed with Mr. Kerry’s assessment, saying that in recent weeks a pattern has emerged, with a rise in attacks as the Islamic State has lost territory.
“ISIS looks like a loser in the Middle East, so there is greater incentive to show through transnational terrorism operations that ‘Yes, we are strong and active, and can hit our enemies in the West despite all the setbacks we’ve had in Syria and Iraq,’ ” Mr. Pillar said.
The killing of Mr. Qaduli, who is also known as Hajji Imam, occurred at a time when the United States is accumulating increasingly more intelligence about the Islamic State and having increased success targeting the Islamic State’s leadership. American intelligence agencies are intercepting many of the group’s communications, and the C.I.A. has developed sources in Syria and Iraq who are producing reliable information, the official said. (Courtesy New York Times)