Why does the United States keep killing #2 in ISIS?

by on March 27, 2016 at 12:18 pm in Current Affairs, Economics, Games, Law, Political Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

Zack Beauchamp reports:

On Friday morning, a US air strike killed Abu Alaa al-Afri, a senior leader in ISIS, whom the US says it considers the organization’s second-ranked leader.

This isn’t the first time that al-Afri has been reported dead — though the US government has allegedly verified his death.

But if (as seems likely) al-Afri is dead, this will be yet another instance in which ISIS’s number two official has been killed. In August of last year, for example, a US airstrike killed Fadhil Ahmad al-Hayali, then identified as the group’s number two.

This continues a trend that news consumers may recognize from counterterrorism efforts against al-Qaeda, in which the group seemed to lose one third-in-command (after Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri) after another.

As some Twitter wags noted, this all hearkens back to a 2006 Onion article, “Eighty Percent Of Al-Qaeda No. 2s Now Dead.”

As Zack mentions, there may be reasons why the #1 is harder to find and kill, but I would suggest a complementary hypothesis.  At many points in time there is more than one #2, just as corporations may have a variety of Executive Vice Presidents.

If you a leader of a terror group, do you really want a well-defined #2 who is a focal alternative and who can move to overthrow you?  Or do you prefer seven competing #2s, with somewhat unclear status, whom you can play off against each other, or make compete against each other, and offer various sticks and carrots and promotions of influence against each other?

And let’s say that one of these #2’s is killed.  How will the United States report this?  “One of seven #2’s has been killed”?  Or perhaps the easier to communicate and more important sounding “We have taken out number two.”

On Wikipedia, the (a?) previous #2 of ISIS is described as “Deputy leader of ISIL?“, question mark in the original.

Here is one look at the command structure of ISIS (or try this alternative).  I cannot vouch for its accuracy, but it is one quick way to see that “#2” is perhaps not always so well-defined:

One concrete implication is this: the more number twos there are, the more likely you can kill one of them.  And those are exactly the same circumstances when killing a number two has a low marginal return.  Keep in mind that the kill is endogenous, and it could be indicating that one of the stronger #2s has strengthened his hand by betraying one of the weakies and getting the West to do the dirty work.  And that kind of competition across subordinates may be precisely what strengthens the hand of the leader.

1 Pat March 27, 2016 at 12:23 pm

Who does number two work for?

2 Thomas M Hermann March 27, 2016 at 12:43 pm

Yeah, baby!

3 Tom Arnold March 27, 2016 at 1:26 pm

Bite your lip, cross your legs and give it hell…were gonna get through this.

4 Sieben March 27, 2016 at 12:26 pm

The U.S. could just institute arbitrary tiebreakers for 2nd. Alphabetical order, age, etc. I’m not a fan of letting the enemy tell you what their organizational structure is.

5 Dan Lavatan March 27, 2016 at 5:04 pm

That’s a remarkably good idea. We could rank them by infidels killed (subtracting their own troops killed), infidel’s wounded (rounded to the nearest thousand), money raised (in millions of barrels of oil sold), new converts/recruits (worth three points each) and stones thrown per sharia violation in their territory.

Every year, we could take the top eight people in both Iraq and Syria and have a head-to-head competition to see who gets the most points each week. The over all winner would get an additional 144 virgins and an advertising contract for Ak-47s.

6 Don Reba March 27, 2016 at 12:33 pm

I would have thought that all members of the organization are well-ordered, and there are unique #2, #3, #456, and so on.

7 Thiago Ribeiro March 27, 2016 at 1:33 pm

Of course not, who ranks higher the HR ivice president or the Marketing VP? The French branch manager or the VP for Social Networks ?

8 XVO March 27, 2016 at 12:46 pm

Or maybe it simply sounds better to have killed the #2 than #12 and who #2 is is subjective?

“Wow they killed the #2 ISIS guy, USA, USA!”

9 chuck martel March 27, 2016 at 12:55 pm

Why would anybody believe anything that the ultra-secretive government says?

10 Moreno Klaus March 27, 2016 at 12:59 pm

Maybe true maybe not… but it is definitely a propaganda operation

11 dlr March 27, 2016 at 12:56 pm

Though this seems incredibly unlikely to be actually happening, an interesting strategy might be to hold off on killing #1 for a period and instead target a series of successive #2s. This might strengthen #1 both by widening the gap (as the #2 spot becomes less attractive for capable replacements) and making #1 seem relatively invulnerable. Then you have a better chance of sending the organization into disarray when and if you target #1.

12 So Much For Subtlety March 27, 2016 at 6:39 pm

What they need to do is copy the French Algerian strategy and spread the rumor that they are killing all the Number Twos because Number Six wants their job.

Or better yet they could copy the usual Middle Eastern strategy and spread the rumor they are killing all the Number Twos because Number One really works for Mossad.

13 Moreno Klaus March 27, 2016 at 1:04 pm

A more interesting question would be who financed and trained ISIS…. It is basically just a tool created to throw down Assad. And if Us/west/sarabia is supporting al-nusra (alqaeda) why not isis? Its basically same thing.

14 The Anti-Gnostic March 27, 2016 at 1:08 pm

I remember MSNBC.com during the Bush administration, when we seemingly killed Al-Qaida’s “Number 2” every month or so. Journalists are a strangely incurious bunch since the 1990’s.

15 Thiago Ribeiro March 27, 2016 at 1:36 pm

“Journalists are a strangely incurious bunch since the 1990’s.”
Not all of them, thanks God! http://www.theonion.com/article/eighty-percent-of-al-qaeda-no-2s-now-dead-5159

16 Josh March 27, 2016 at 1:22 pm

You ask an interesting question, but then, don’t answer it. “Cuz their bad” is not good enough.

17 jk March 27, 2016 at 1:22 pm

The same shell game occurred in Iraq. How many Al Qaeda in Iraq no. 2s was astounding. Maybe these number 2s are a replaceable middle managers.

One step beyond the body count metric I suppose.

18 Ed March 27, 2016 at 1:25 pm

Wouldn’t it be easier to work our way up from the bottom? Those guys probably are the easiest target. Almost every day you could announce the demise of #’s 35,000 thru 34,992 or so.

19 Yancey Ward March 27, 2016 at 1:42 pm

Some lies are easier to believe than others, and some lies have more propaganda value than others. Create your Venn diagram accordingly.

20 Nick_L March 27, 2016 at 1:55 pm

Killing No. 2 sends a clear message to No. 1 as well as the rest of the organisation. Also, given that No. 1 might well be the guy with the best leadership & organisational skills, you might want to keep him around, if you can bring him to the table. The British were quite good at this. A number of senior 3rd world leaders received the benefits of time to think, in British jails. You wonder how things might have turned out if Gerry Adams, Ghandi, Kenyatta, etc, had been taken out by drone strike. Not every No. 2 has the ability or charisma to lead thier people to a peaceful solution.

21 chuck martel March 27, 2016 at 8:22 pm

“Not every No. 2 has the ability or charisma to lead thier people to a peaceful solution.”

How can you be sure that their people want a peaceful solution?

22 uair01 March 27, 2016 at 2:16 pm


Other scholars such as Patrick B Johnston argue that leadership decapitation is inefficient mainly due to martyrdom effects. Johnston believes that if an organisation’s leader is assassinated, the members of the targeted terrorist organisation will want revenge and exact more attacks.

He argues that leadership decapitation is a recipe for endless war as it only creates more disdain in hostile regions and spreads a bad reputation of the state. Russell draws two cases – France in Algeria, and Israel’s conflict with Hamas. He asserts that neither of the two conflicts in which leadership decapitation was (and in Israel’s case, still is) implemented as a large-scale strategy has been successful. In fact, it only prolonged the wars and seemed to make peaceful resolutions less likely.

23 Jim Harper March 27, 2016 at 4:58 pm

Nice to see someone drawing on the literature about the motivations and actions of terrorists and terrorist groups. The original post and other comments seem to take it as a given that rising in the ranks is terrorists’ main goal. While it may be the goal of some, it is unlikely a uniformly sought goal the way it is in, say, U.S. corporations. Presuming the motivations of terrorists, leader and muscle alike, has been a significant source of miscalculation in U.S. counterterrorism policy, IMO. Make the model fit the people, as the people aren’t governed by the model.

24 Peldrigal April 7, 2016 at 10:28 am

There is a reason why international law was against assassination of enemy leaders. But US policymakers saw it as an archaic relic of a bygone time, and anyways it did not apply to terrorists. That you could not assassinate if they are foreign criminals in a foreign country, but you can “target” because they are enemy combatants. To whom international law protection does not apply because they are “unlawful”.
It’s all smoke and mirrors.

25 Matthew Moore March 27, 2016 at 2:48 pm

The gap between one and two is very big. These guys are fascists. The number two’s only job is to be the public face / front man for the number one. This makes him very vulnerable to targeting, while allowing the circle of people who know the location of the leader to be kept small.

26 Horhe March 27, 2016 at 2:58 pm

This reminds me of an old War Nerd column called “Assassinations – Where Accounting meets Human Resources”.


“If you’re running assassinations, you have to be as familiar with the enemy’s organization chart as their own HR people. In fact, you basically have to act like a Human Resources Department in reverse, deciding who the best of the enemy are, and taking them out—but also identifying the weak leaders and protecting them. (I know, I’m giving the average HR department WAY too much credit when I say “in reverse.” We all know a lot of HR jerks who spend their time protecting the idiots and weeding out the smart people, but I’m talking theory here.)

The VC knew that evil or incompetent South Vietnamese officials and generals were their allies. Their “sparrow” assassination teams would kill anyone who did their job well.

But there were some South Vietnamese officials the VC never, ever touched: the sleazy tax collectors, corrupt officers, incompetent provincial bureaucrats. Because the VC had total force discipline, and knew that much as their trigger fingers must have itched to blow away those dirty bastards, it wasn’t a smart move, because enemy officials like them were actually working fulltime as propaganda for the VC, even if they didn’t know it. Every time a recruiting officer took some poor mama’s bribe and then shoved her last living son into ARVN anyway, the VC could tell the story in every village for miles around on their nighttime PR visits. A guy like that was gold to them, and it was hands off.”

So, maybe the US has been offing competent Jeeves and Appleby types while leaving the Woosters and the Hackers to rule the roost in peace.

27 byomtov March 27, 2016 at 3:29 pm

Keep in mind that the kill is endogenous, and it could be indicating that one of the stronger #2s has strengthened his hand by betraying one of the weakies and getting the West to do the dirty work.

Could be. Could not be. But if not why is the kill endogenous?

And that kind of competition across subordinates may be precisely what strengthens the hand of the leader.

Yes. It might be.

But I don’t think it’s clear that increasing the power of the leader within the organization necessarily increases the strength of the organization. A cabinet minister who is a “weakie” in terms of internal politics might still be very good at his job.

28 TallDave March 27, 2016 at 3:45 pm

Doesn’t seem to be much in the way of serious efforts to address the institutional problems that create the need for bombing runs.

Not saying the bombing runs are a bad idea, but I don’t want my grandkids to still be doing them in 50 years.

29 carlolspln March 27, 2016 at 5:01 pm

“Not saying the bombing runs are a bad idea…”

You just did.

30 Jan March 27, 2016 at 5:28 pm

Would you be in support of us buggering off and ignoring the situation, with some exceptions for humanitarian efforts, like with the Yazidis? I would.

31 Charlie March 27, 2016 at 3:50 pm

Beauchamp is the guy who “reported” (Voxsplained?) that there is a bridge linking Gaza and the West Bank. Fortunately, this report doesn’t actually say anything, so it is probably not wrong. Even though there is no content (3 paragraphs to Voxsplain that ISIS’s #2 leader is dead, but maybe not, but probably, please don’t hold us to that) it’s still somehow smugly written. Very impressive. Vox: America’s Finest News Source.

32 Derek March 27, 2016 at 4:07 pm

I am across something the other day where the Marines have figured out that a higher casualty rate for second lieutenants means a lower rate for enlisted men.

Call me when they hit 30% of the fighting force.

33 stephen March 27, 2016 at 4:24 pm

Can’t remember which US general – it might have been McChrystal – was supposed to have said that he lost his faith in decapitation strategies when he considered whether selective assassination of prominent persons in the Pentagon, or in the US Government, would weaken the US military effort, or strengthen it.

34 Merrill Guice March 27, 2016 at 4:41 pm

Number Six: Who are you?
Number Two: The new Number Two.
Number Six: Who is Number One?
Number Two: You are Number Six.
Number Six: I am not a number. I am a person.
Number Two: Six of one, half dozen of another.

35 TvK March 27, 2016 at 5:44 pm

Good to see Patrick McGoogan’s seminal “The Prisoner” TV series from the 60’s is still renowned in certain circles. I’ve only recently got the chance to enjoy the excellent blu ray edition. A warning from the past.

But who is Nr. One? Now,that would be telling…

36 Gafiated March 27, 2016 at 6:51 pm

Thank you for restoring my faith in humanity. I had scrolled almost to the bottom of the thread without seeing a reference to “The Prisoner” and thought I would have to do it myself.

37 A B March 27, 2016 at 4:58 pm

No sources, but apparently, Israel had a very successful targeted campaign of killing terrorists with specialized knowledge– in particular, engineers with the ability to create compact explosive devices.

38 Jan March 27, 2016 at 5:34 pm

That would to make sense on its face, and it seems the same concept is being applied to leaders who have scarce abilities in military strategy/communications/etc., so long as we assume that the most knowledgeable and effective people are actually being promoted within ISIS.

39 RM March 27, 2016 at 5:11 pm

I think that the simplest explanation is that this is the way to give jobs to the boys and make lots of people feel important. It is a feature of non-democratic organizations and was frequently found in communist/dictatorial governments, although with some nuance (first vice president, second vice president, etc.)

The leader playing each other off, etc., is a second order outcome of giving people jobs to make them feel important.

40 Benjamin Cole March 27, 2016 at 7:27 pm

I sense futility.

41 chuck martel March 27, 2016 at 8:42 pm

If so much is known about the terrorist hierarchy why aren’t efforts made to assassinate the guys supplying the money?

42 Moreno Klaus March 28, 2016 at 7:21 am

Well, I think we both why…

43 dux.ie March 27, 2016 at 9:25 pm

Re: On Wikipedia, the (a?) previous #2 of ISIS is described as “Deputy leader of ISIL?“, question mark in the original.

The wiki ref quoted pointed to Abu Ali al-Anbari https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abu_Ali_al-Anbari , which is different from
Abu Ala al-Afri https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abu_Ala_al-Afri . Although both were born in the same place, the former was born in year 1970 and the later year 1957 or 1959 . Also the former was formerly a major general in Iraq while the later was formerly a physic teacher. And the wiki ref said that “According to Middle-east analyst Hassan Hassan, Abu Ala al-Afri, an influential member within ISIL, was believed to have replaced al-Anbari as al-Baghdadi’s second-in-command.”

44 Ann Onymous March 27, 2016 at 9:37 pm

I am old enough to remember when we kept killing #3 in Al-Qaida. I know, it happened like five years ago.

45 Tom T. March 27, 2016 at 11:39 pm

Obviously, somebody thought we needed some good news to point to after Brussels, so they looked at whoever was killed over in the Islamic State recently and designated him #2. It’s a propaganda-based title assigned after the fact, not a recognition of operational responsibility.

46 Boonton March 28, 2016 at 5:50 am

While multiple #2’s might mean the weakest #2 is always the one who gets killed, it still doesn’t seem good for the organization. For one thing, stronger people higher up may not be better for the organization, just that they are stronger at self-preservation and rent-seeking. On top of that it is going to be harder for a group to recruit top talent if the odds of being higher up also increase your chance of getting killed.

47 WC Varones March 28, 2016 at 12:54 pm

Who does #2 work for?

48 Mr. Econotarian March 29, 2016 at 1:19 am

Number Six: Who are you?
Number Two: The new Number Two.
Number Six: Who is Number One?
Number Two: You are Number Six.
Number Six: I am not a number! I am a free man!
Number Two: [laughs]

49 AK March 29, 2016 at 4:23 pm

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