CENTCOM: Three senior Islamic State foreign fighters killed

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Teen-aged jihadists attending the “Cubs of the Caliphate” program in Afghanistan. Abu Asim al-Jazaeri, who was killed in Syria on May 11, was a trainer in the same program.

US Central Command (CENTCOM) announced today that “three senior foreign fighters” in the Islamic State were killed near the Iraqi-Syrian border in recent weeks. Two of them, Mustafa Gunes and Abu Asim al-Jazaeri, were allegedly involved in planning attacks abroad. And the third, Abu-Khattab al-Rawi, helped oversee the jihadists’ drone program in western Iraq.

Both Gunes and al-Jazaeri were struck down near the city of Mayadin in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor. The Islamic State has moved some of its leadership to Mayadin as it has lost ground elsewhere.

According to the US military, both Mustafa Gunes and Abu Asim al-Jazaeri were involved in the Islamic State’s “external operations” — that is, terrorist plotting outside of the jihadists’ battlefields — when they were bombed. Gunes was killed on Apr. 27, while al-Jazaeri perished in a separate airstrike on May 11.

CENTCOM describes Gunes as “a Syria-based ISIS external operations facilitator from Turkey,” who “was identified as an ISIS recruiter in the central Turkish city of Konya.” Gunes “was linked to facilitating financial support for planning attacks outside Syria and Iraq against the West.”

Jihadist networks have long operated in Turkey’s Konya province. An al Qaeda facilitator who was killed in Idlib, Syria last year, and who was also reportedly plotting against the West, had operated in Konya in the past.

Al-Jazaeri, a French-Algerian, was an “ISIS external operations planner” as well. CENTCOM says al-Jazaeri “was involved in training a new generation of ISIS youths, called the Cubs of the Caliphate, a high priority training program sanctioned by ISIS leadership.”

The Islamic State has advertised its “Cubs of the Caliphate” training initiative. The effort is not confined to Iraq and Syria. It has been extended to the so-called caliphate’s “provinces.” For instance, in early 2016, the Islamic State’s Wilayah Khorasan (or Khorasan province) released a video of boys and adolescents being trained on light arms. The group’s “Cubs of the Caliphate Camp” was likely located somewhere in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province, where the Wilayah Khorasan established its base of operations. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Islamic State joins others in training children for jihad in Afghanistan.]

It is not clear from CENTCOM’s statement if al-Jazaeri was involved in the “Cubs of the Caliphate” program solely in Iraq and Syria, or elsewhere around the world as well.

The US has pointed to the role Islamic State leaders play in indoctrinating children after previous targeted killings. In March, a propagandist known as Ibrahim al-Ansari was killed in an airstrike in Al-Qa’im, which is located in Iraq’s Al Anbar province. US military officials said at the time that Al-Ansari was responsible for “the brainwashing of young children to perpetuate ISIS’s brutal message.” [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Islamic State propagandist was ‘brainwashing’ children, US military says.]

Mustafa Gunes and Abu Asim al-Jazaeri are not the only senior jihadists targeted in eastern Syria this year. In early April, a “close associate” of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi known as Abdurakhmon Uzbeki was also killed in a special operations raid near Mayadin. The US said Uzbeki “played a key role” in the group’s “external terror attack plotting” and linked him to the New Year’s Eve attack at the Reina nightclub in Istanbul, Turkey. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, US: Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s ‘close associate’ killed in special operations raid.]

The third Islamic State figure recently killed is Abu-Khattab al-Rawi. According to CENTCOM, al-Rawi was “a senior ISIS military official” and he died during “an operation near” Al-Qa’im on May 18. Al-Rawi was “killed along with three other terrorists.” He “was responsible for coordinating UAV operations and procurement in Al Anbar Province” and “provided direct support to ISIS leadership.” The Islamic State’s jihadists have relied on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, to drop small bombs and perform surveillance on their enemies. The group’s propaganda arms also utilize drones for overhead footage that is intended to dramatize the impact of suicide bombings and other operations.

The Islamic State released a photo of a “martyr” who used the same alias as Abu-Khattab al-Rawi on May 20. The group described him as a “media brother,” meaning he worked on propaganda. It is not clear if it was the same individual who was killed days earlier in Al-Qa’im.

CENTCOM claims the “deaths of these men” — Gunes, al-Jazaeri, and al-Rawi — “eliminates senior foreign fighters, who had extensive experience and training, and degrades ISIS’s ability to plan and conduct attacks on civilian targets in Iraq and Syria, as well throughout the region and in the West.”

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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