WASHINGTON—US drone operators had been stalking the baby-faced British terrorist for days with infrared cameras and other sensors before the order came to kill him.
As night fell on April 25, a US warplane dropped a guided bomb that obliterated the sport-utility vehicle occupied by 23-year-old Raphael Saihou Hostey near Mosul, Islamic State’s (IS) stronghold in Iraq.
Hostey, a recruiter for the militants, was targeted by a US military campaign that has singled out and killed more than 120 IS leaders, commanders, propagandists, recruiters and other so-called high-value individuals so far this year, officials said.
The leadership attacks have picked up recently due to intelligence collected by special operations teams on night raids, from captured militants, and from intercepted of e-mail, cell phone and other communications.
The focus on IS command and control structure, including its recruitment and funding systems, has helped weaken the Sunni extremist group as Iraqi, Syrian and Kurdish forces press the militants on the battlefield.
The targeted killings are so well known that militants have built “counterdrone screens” of cardboard and plywood to hide leaders and fighters in parts of Raqqa, the group’s declared capital in Syria. They also have belittled the attacks as insignificant.
“America, do you think that victory comes by killing a commander or more?” a spokesman, Abu Mohammed Adnani, said in a recorded message released on May 21. “We will not be deterred by your campaigns and you will not be victorious.”
US commanders tend to agree that killing IS’s leaders one by one won’t end the war any more than killing Osama bin Laden in 2011 ended the terrorist threat from al-Qaeda.
Lt. Gen. Robert P. Otto, Air Force chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, said leadership strikes have only a short-term effect. Bombing IS’s oil-production sites and cash hoards have hurt the group much more.
“From my observation, when we take [high-value individuals] off the battlefield, there is a temporary impact on operations and then the adversary appoints someone else in his place,” Otto said. “There has always been somebody else to move into those positions and the fight continues.
“We cannot kill our way out of this war.”
The campaign, run by Joint Special Operations Command in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, emerged from the “kill-capture operations” that were used against insurgents in the Iraq war and that were expanded in Afghanistan. The command refers to each confirmed kill as a “jackpot.”
The Pentagon this year has announced several major jackpots. They include Omar Shishani, IS’s minister of war; Rahman Mustafa Qaduli, its minister of finance; and Abu Wahib, military emir for Iraq’s Anbar province.
For now, the air strikes have “created distrust” in the militant ranks, said Rami Abdurrahman, founder of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition monitoring group.
IS has executed at least 46 people as suspected spies in the last three months, he said in a telephone interview. Some were accused of placing GPS devices on cars or at locations to signal coalition forces, he said.
US aircraft dropped 45,000 leaflets on Wednesday over Akashat, an Iraqi town near the Syrian border.
On one side, pictures of four IS leaders had “KILLED” in red Arabic text over their faces. The flip side had a photo of the group’s leader, Abu Bakr Baghdadi.
“Baghdadi will be killed sooner or later, too,” the text read. “Islamic State leadership hides in fear of coalition air strikes while you must remain exposed. Leave Islamic State now, before you meet your fate too.”