ISIS may be down to their third-string #2 guy

The White House is saying that an airstrike earlier this week in Mosul, Iraq, killed ISIS’s “second-in-command,” Hajji Mutazz (AKA Fadhil Ahmad al-Hayali), along with one of the group’s “media operatives” (seriously?), a guy named Abu Abdullah. This is the second third time Mutazz has been “killed” in an American airstrike, which is either an argument against believing reports like this when they first come in or a powerful piece of evidence in favor of the theory that ISIS fighters are actually zombies.

This news comes just a little over three months after the last ISIS “second-in-command,” Abu Alaa al-Afari, was reportedly killed in a US airstrike on Tal Afar, though I suppose there’s no particular reason to think that he’s actually dead either. If Afari isn’t dead, though, then he’s probably just finding out now that he and Mutazz had/have the same job, so…awkward. Seriously, though, you should probably take the designations of these guys as “second-in-command” with as big a grain of salt as you should take the various reports of their many deaths.

Whether Mutazz is dead or not, and whether he is/was really ISIS’s second-in-command or not, this is a good time for a periodic reminder that nobody really knows whether or not decapitation strikes actually work:

The successful drone strike in Yemen on Monday against Nasser al-Wuhayshi, leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has sparked a renewed conversation (here, here) about whether so-called decapitation strikes are effective. From a now decade-long campaign against Taliban commanders in Afghanistan and Pakistan to high-profile efforts against Osama Bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leadership assassination has emerged as a key — and sometimes the only — tactic against terrorist and insurgent organizations.

But does it work?

Not surprisingly, political scientists have increasingly weighed in. And, also not surprisingly, there’s little consensus.

The effect of these strikes is hard to measure in part because so many reports of successful decapitation strikes wind up being wrong. But beyond that, these are individual people we’re talking about, and since we’re all special snowflakes it’s reasonable to figure that assassinating one guy could produce a different outcome than assassinating some other guy, who works for some other organization, in some other place, at some other time. One organization might be on its way up and have a ton of qualified and even more dangerous candidates to replace the guy you kill. Another organization might be circling the drain and will have to replace the guy you killed with a nincompoop. People are all different, their organizations are all different, the conflicts they’re fighting in are all different…you get the idea. This isn’t a great topic for making sweeping pronouncements.

These kind of strikes don’t even affect the same organization in the same way from one to the next. Killing a small brigade of “Al-Qaeda number threes” throughout the 2000s, when Al-Qaeda was riding high, didn’t seem to do much to slow that organization’s roll. On the other hand, killing bin Laden at a time when Al-Qaeda was on its heels probably did hurt them, especially insofar as his replacement was the spectacularly uninspiring Zawahiri, who promptly watched ISIS break away and take a lot of Al-Qaeda’s prestige with it.

Mutazz was reportedly responsible for logistics, shifting fighters and resources back and forth between Syria and Iraq, and he may have been in charge of their kidnapping operations. He seems obviously to have been (or to still be) important to the organization, and his death (if he’s dead) means one less horrible human being on the planet, so that’s probably OK. It’s just not clear whether it will actually matter in the big picture.

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