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U.S. Defense Secretary Says Top ISIS Leader Has Been Killed


The Pentagon says it has killed a top leader of ISIS. American troops have been pursuing members of what's been described as the Islamic State's cabinet, and we learned today that they got the man described as the group's finance minister, Haji Iman. He's the first top figure who's been killed or captured since this week's deadly attacks in Brussels.

Joining us in the studio to talk more about this is NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. Hey there, Tom.


CORNISH: So what more can you tell us about Haji Iman? And what role did he play in the group?

BOWMAN: Well, first of all, he's been at this for years. He worked in Iraq back during the war for the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was later killed in a U.S. air strike. Haji Iman was the finance minister for ISIS, according to officials. And he was also involved in planning attacks outside the area. And the U.S. isn't saying how they got him.

Now, going after these leaders has been a prime focus for the U.S. They've sent hundreds of commandos to Iraq for this very purpose, sometimes going into Syria. And they recently captured an ISIS chemical weapons engineer, one more leader. And this part of a wider effort to go after the structures of ISIS - not only the leadership, but its banks, its oil business, supply lines, command and control centers. So it's essentially chipping away at the caliphate.

CORNISH: Can any connection be drawn between the success that Pentagon is claiming that it's making and the work being done, say, in Brussels now?

BOWMAN: No, probably not. That's because the raids or bombing in Syria and Iraq means little for the neighborhoods in Brussels, where you have multiple cells, or at least a large cell in Brussels, which reaches into France and beyond. You have, as we've seen, caches of weapons, bomb material being grabbed there in Brussels and an expectation that other attacks are in the planning stages. Hundreds of Belgian jihadists have traveled to Syria to fight, get training. Now, they're heading back.

CORNISH: Now, what more did you learn today about the broader U.S. military campaign against the group?

BOWMAN: Well, we learned that a company of Marines in northern Iraq, with their artillery, were firing in support of an Iraqi troop movement. They're at small outpost. And we've been told it was just to provide security for U.S. and Iraqi troops. So now they're in offensive operations, and that's where one Marine was killed by an ISIS rocket and several other Marines wounded.

Now, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joe Dunford said this is not a new job. Marines have done this before for Iraqi troops west of Baghdad. And he likened this to U.S. airstrikes, but pilots fly at 15,000 feet with little or no threat. Clearly, this is a ground effort, and it's more dangerous, as we saw in the death of Marine Staff Sgt. Louis Cardin. Now, Gen. Dunford said, for the expected operation to retake Mosul, you're likely to see more American ground forces supporting the Iraqi troops. Let's listen.


GENERAL JOE DUNFORD: We have a series of recommendations that we will be discussing with the president in the coming weeks to further enable our support for the Iraqi security forces. So again, the secretary and I both believe that there will be an increase to the U.S. forces in Iraq in the coming weeks, but that decision hasn't been made.

BOWMAN: And what he means would likely be advisers closer to the front lines, maybe Green Beret advisers, soldiers calling in airstrikes, that kind of support. But don't expect it anytime soon.

CORNISH: Are they calling this progress? Are they saying that this fight is drawing any closer to a close?

BOWMAN: Well, they're saying they, again, are taking apart the caliphate, chipping away at it. They're saying they're making some strides, that, you know, the ISIS hasn't gained any ground. But I spoke with one senior officer, who - we talked about Mosul, and he thought it would fall a year from now. And he said, frankly, I think that's optimistic.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Tom Bowman. Tom, thanks so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.