In the last five months, US forces have killed at least 15 senior Islamic State (ISIS) commanders hiding in the Syrian town of Mayadin on the Euphrates River, where most of the group’s leaders are reported to be concentrated.
Many of those assassinated, either in targeted air strikes or US special forces raids, were key figures in ISIS’s external operations unit, part of the group’s feared Emni intelligence apparatus.
They were responsible for terrorist attacks in Western Europe, Turkey and Arab countries — underlining Western fears the jihadists are stepping up such strikes to avenge heavy losses in recent months and demonstrate that ISIS has not been eradicated.
US and Syrian sources said ISIS has steadily spirited senior cadres from the group’s Syrian capital, the north-eastern city of Raqqa, which is expected to fall to US-backed forces in the next few weeks, to Mayadin, 160km north-east of Raqqa in Deir ez-Zor governorate in recent months, along with a substantial portion of the group’s cash reserves.
The sources said one transfer involved $20 million smuggled out of Raqqa across the desert in three taxis carrying the wives and children of senior officials, mainly from the key branches of external operations, recruiting, finance and propaganda.
Other senior cadres such as administrators and weapons technicians who will play an important role in ISIS’s plans to regroup have reportedly been sent to other cities in northern Syria.
“Mayadin is clearly viewed by ISIS as a safe haven,” observed Anne Speckhard, director of the US-based International Centre for the Study of Violent Extremism. That “makes the city of great significance in the fight against ISIS.”
Among the commanders reported killed by the Americans since April were Lavdrim Muhaxheri, also known as Abu Abdullah al-Kosova, an ethnic Albanian and leader of ISIS’s foreign fighters from Kosovo. He was reportedly killed in an air strike along with his deputy, Irfan Hafiqi.
Two other external operations leaders — Abu Anas al-Shami, identified as a “weapons research leader” who provided bombs for terror attacks and specialised in hiding explosives in human corpses, and Junaid ur Rahman, “a senior drone pilot and engineer” — were killed in a September 4 US air strike.
Ed Blanche has covered Middle East affairs since 1967. He is the Arab Weekly analyses section editor.