The second in command of the Islamic State was killed in northern Iraq earlier this week, the White House said Friday.
Fadhil Ahmad al-Hayali, a leader of Islamic State operations also known as Hajji Mutazz, was traveling in a vehicle near Mosul on Aug. 18 when he was killed in a U.S. airstrike. Hayali was a senior deputy to the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, according to a statement from Ned Price, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
Like much of the Islamic State’s senior leadership, Hayali had been an officer in the Iraqi army under Saddam Hussein and was a former member of the country’s special forces. During the American occupation of Iraq, he fought with al-Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni extremist group that was largely defeated during the later years of the American war.
Political instability, sectarian tensions and the civil war in Syria allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq’s senior leadership to reconstitute as the Islamic State. Some reports said that in the 2000s, Hayali was imprisoned in the U.S.-run Bucca prison camp, the main detention center for members of the Sunni insurgency, where Baghdadi also was held. The prison became an incubator for al-Qaeda in Iraq as well as the Islamic State.
Hayali’s mix of traditional military training and experience battling U.S. and Iraqi forces as an insurgent made him an especially valuable leader. The White House statement said Hayali was a “primary coordinator” for moving large amounts of weapons, explosives, vehicles and people between Iraq and Syria.
Hayali’s role in the organization first became clear last year after Iraqi forces raided the house of Abu Abdulrahman al-Bilawi, a top Islamic State commander, just days before the fall of the northern city of Mosul in June 2014. Iraqi forces retrieved a trove of documents during the operation.
Hayali was in charge of all of the group’s military operations in Iraq, coordinating among senior commanders, according to Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi analyst who claims to have had access to the documents.
The death of Hayali will deal a “severe blow” to the Islamic State, taking out one of its most valued strategists, said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.
But the group, which has seized large chunks of terrain in Iraq and Syria, has proven resilient in the face of more than 6,000 airstrikes over the past year.
“Ultimately, [the Islamic State] is sufficiently well-led and structured that such a loss will not necessarily impact upon the organization’s capacity to continue its pace of operations,” Lister said.
In December, defense officials stated incorrectly that Hayali had been killed in an airstrike.
Morris reported from Baghdad.