U.S. Kills an Islamic State Leader in Push to Eliminate Cabinet

  • Carter sees momentum in effort to defeat terrorist group
  • Battlefield losses drive attacks outside Mideast, Kerry says

The U.S. military has killed a senior Islamic State leader in Syria as part of a push to wipe out top commanders in the terrorist group, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said.

The dead official, who was known as Haji Imam, served as Islamic State’s finance minister, Carter said Friday at the Pentagon. His death, along with those of other key figures, will crimp the Islamic State’s capabilities even as the U.S. remains far from fully defeating the militants, Pentagon officials said.

“We are systematically eliminating ISIL’s cabinet,” Carter told reporters, using one of the acronyms for Islamic State. “We believe these actions have been successful and have done damage to ISIL.”

Carter and Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, disclosed the U.S. move three days after Islamic State claimed credit for the terrorist bombings that killed at least 31 people in Brussels. While Carter said he couldn’t say whether Haji Imam had anything to do with Islamic State’s assaults in Paris last year and Belgium this week, the slain leader clearly was part of efforts to recruit foreign fighters.

Speaking in Brussels, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Islamic State’s battlefield setbacks in Syria and Iraq are driving the group to escalate its offensive against civilians in Europe. He spoke as Syrian government troops closed in Friday on Palmyra and the Iraqi army advanced toward Mosul in campaigns to retake two Islamic State strongholds.

Caliphate ‘Fantasy’

“The very reason that Daesh is resorting to actions outside the Middle East is that its fantasy of a caliphate is collapsing before their eyes,” Kerry told reporters, using another name for the Islamic State. “Its territory is shrinking every day.”

Carter didn’t describe how the U.S. killed Haji Imam and other Islamic State terrorists or when the deaths occurred, beyond saying they came this week. He also didn’t give details on Haji Imam’s age or national origin. The Islamic State leader was “responsible for some external affairs, plots” and was a “well-known terrorist within ISIL’s ranks, dating back to its earliest iteration as Al-Queda in Iraq,” Carter said.

Eliminating the group’s top officials, while necessary and important, isn’t sufficient by itself, and those commanders will be replaced, Carter said. Dunford said the push against Islamic State is far from complete, even though the U.S. attacks have made a dent in the group’s resources.

“The momentum is in our favor,” Dunford said. “But by no means would I say we’re about to break the back of ISIL or that the fight is over.”

The U.S. presence on the ground to fight Islamic State has expanded, including the limited use of special forces that can gather intelligence and help conduct raids in Iraq and Syria.

While the Pentagon officials said the official U.S. presence of advisers and trainers in Iraq remains at the 3,800 approved by President Barack Obama, they said the number fluctuates and has exceeded that level as troops rotate in before the departure of those they are replacing.

Dunford gave the most direct indication so far that he and Carter have recommended that Obama, who has resisted engaging U.S. troops in ground combat, approve sending more Americans to Iraq.

“The secretary and I believe there will be an increase to the U.S. forces in the coming weeks,” the general said.

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