Combatting Islamic State: the impact of high-value targeting
12 May 2016|

Last week’s confirmation that Australian Islamic State member, Neil Prakash, had been killed in a US air strike has been greeted as a cause for optimism in the war against the terrorist group.

But what’s the real impact of removing a person like Prakash? And what role, if any, should high-value targeting have in conflict scenarios and the broader fight against terrorism?

Prakash was significant both to Australia and Islamic State for a number of reasons.

He was the most high-profile Australian foreign fighter in the Middle East. Other well-known Australians have either died, including Mohamed Elomar and ‘Ginger Jihadi’ Abdullah Elmir, or, as in the case of Khaled Sharrouf, have maintained a low-profile.

Prakash also became an active recruiter for Islamic State, focused particularly on sourcing potential Australians fighters and supporters. Based in Syria, he had largely taken on the lead recruiting role after Mohamed Ali Baryalei death in October 2014.

Finally, Prakash reached out to inspire and plan terrorist acts in Australia, most recently the Anzac Day plot that was disrupted only days before his death in Mosul.  

Prakash was a Australian living and operating beyond the reach of Australia’s laws. Domestic legal measures—like control orders, passport cancellation, citizenship renunciation—were either irrelevant or largely ineffectual in the combat zone he had lived in for the past three years.  But his actions fighting in a war, and his allegiance to Islamic State meant he was an enemy combatant in a military action recognised under international law. He died as a combatant.

Prakash’s death is also significant in that it’s an indicator of the ongoing military degradation of Islamic State’s fighting forces in Iraq and Syria.

From the heady days of al Baghdadi’s declaration of a caliphate in June 2014 followed by a year of offensives leading to effective control over key cities, population and territory in Iraq and Syria, the erstwhile IS government has lost almost half of the area it controlled, and much of its other resources. As high-value targets like Prakash and Abu Wahib (also killed in a US strike this week) are removed from the battlefield, Islamic State’s leadership and capability are weakened.

Military defeat at every turn, territory and resources eking away, leadership being slowly dismantled. In a conventional military conflict, such developments would spell the enemy’s demise. But Islamic State is an insurgent group with a strong cultural and ideational base, rather than a conventional and state-based military force.

The group’s ability to recover from these leadership losses depends on the particular roles they performed. It might take some time to find a replacement for Prakash’s network into Australia, but there are many involved in recruitment and plotting who will keep the online activity going.

As we saw with the video of the Ginger Jihadi, the social media propaganda machine can easily produce imagery of another Australian to engage supporters here, regardless of the individual’s ability.

And as Musa Cerantonio and others have demonstrated, in the online environment of contemporary violent extremists, you don’t need to be anywhere near the fighting or the caliphate to inspire and recruit others to the cause.

Similarly, the death of Abu Wahib will detract from Islamic State’s tactical capability in Anbar province, where he was leading the insurgent group. And Anbar is one of the key areas of focus for the next stage of the US-led coalition’s campaign. But the group has demonstrated previously that it has others to fill vacant roles.

Attacking high-value targets plays an important role in the overall military campaign. Despite the best efforts of Islamic State’s online propaganda machine, such defeats are impacting its supporters. The allure of the caliphate has worn off for many would-be foreign fighters: recruitment is down an estimated 90% from a year ago with an average of 200 a month now heading for the conflict zone compared with 1,500 to 2,000 per month in early 2015.

As the last fighters battle it out in Iraq and Syria, others have already moved to the new arenas in North Africa and Yemen—some of which include already declared wilayats—to join some local insurgent groups already in place, in order to attract the next wave of foreign fighters.

For Islamic State in particular, the move to external operations is a mixed experience. The pending end of the proclaimed ‘caliphate’ in Iraq and Syria undermines its legitimacy. But the move outwards to new fighting fronts guarantees its survival, at least for now.

Prakash’s death removes one of the key links funnelling violent extremists to and from Australia. He had recruited Australian foreign fighters and inspired others through his online activity, though had failed to achieve any operational impact on Australia in his small-scale plots. But he was persistent in seeking to attack Australians. The threat he posed has now been neutralised.

Australian authorities demonstrated considerable capability in tracking Prakash’s online engagement, and disrupting plans for fresh attacks. The US high-value target strike is another blow against Islamic State, but new threats will arise in other places. The key to this long-term and multifaceted campaign is to maintain the focus, momentum and commitment.

*An earlier version of this piece incorrectly referred to Mohamed Ali Baryalei’s arrest in September 2014. Baryalei was in fact killed in October 2014. The version above has been corrected.