WASHINGTON – The U.S. military killed several key Islamic State figures this week, including a top commander who was serving as a finance minister, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said Friday.
U.S. officials said the commander, known as Haji Imam, has held a series of high-level roles in the Islamic State and is part of a leadership core that traces back to the organization’s emergence as an al-Qaida affiliate after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
“We are systematically eliminating ISIL’s cabinet,” said Carter at a press briefing Friday, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
Terrorism experts have long regarded Imam as a kind of elder statesman for the terrorist group because of his long association with the Islamic State and its predecessor organizations. The Mosul native, reportedly about 57 years old, was one of the few surviving links to the era when al-Qaida in Iraq, under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, soared to prominence at the forefront of the anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq.
Imam is a “longtime member, someone who forms connective tissue to the al-Qaida in Iraq days,” a U.S. official said, adding that he was “closely associated and tied to Zarqawi.” Zarqawi, a Jordanian operative known for his brutal tactics, was head of the al-Qaida franchise in Iraq until he was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2006.
U.S. officials stopped short of describing Imam as No. 2 in the organization, saying that he held an array of important positions but remained largely behind the scenes. He did not have the high public profile of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, who functions as the group’s spokesman.
He has been described as charismatic and a gifted speaker as well as a skillful manager who played a critical role as a link between Baghdadi and the Islamic State’s regional “emirs” in Iraq and Syria. His death, coming on the heels of the killing of other senior terrorist leaders, could undercut the terrorist group’s ability to coordinate its military operations, analysts say.
There was no immediate reaction from the Islamic State’s official media, although jihadist social media sites noted the report of his death with skepticism. Iraqi officials had inaccurately reported that Haji Imam was killed last April during a U.S. airstrike in western Iraq.
Imam’s real name is Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, according to the Treasury Department, which includes him on its list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists.
The Justice Department listed a reward of up to $7 million for information on Imam. In a press release, Justice said Imam had “reintegrated himself” into the Islamic State after his release from prison in early 2012. The department said he joined al-Qaida in 2004 under the command of Zarqawi and served as his deputy. He was also the leader in Mosul for al-Qaida in Iraq, according to the Justice Department.
Earlier this month, the Islamic State’s “emir of war,” Abu Omar al-Shishani, also known as Omar the Chechen, was killed after a U.S. airstrike in northeastern Syria.
The Pentagon has targeted the leaders of groups such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State, although senior leaders of these terrorist groups are often quickly replaced. “Striking leadership is necessary, but far from sufficient,” Carter said.