Zeina Karam

BEIRUT: The Islamic State group’s spokesman and chief strategist, who laid out the blueprint for the extremist group’s attacks against the West, has been killed while overseeing operations in northern Syria, the group announced Tuesday.

The IS-run Aamaq news agency said Abu Muhammed al-Adnani was “martyred while surveying the operations to repel the military campaigns in Aleppo,” and vowed to avenge his death. It did not provide any further details on when or how he died.

If confirmed, it would be a major blow to the extremist group, which has been on the retreat in Syria and Iraq, where the borders of its self-declared Islamic caliphate have been steadily eroded in recent months.

Al-Adnani, whose real name is Taha Sobhi Falaha, persistently called for attacks against the West, which paid off in bloody notoriety with the Nov. 13 coordinated attacks in Paris that hit a concert hall, a stadium and restaurants and bars, leaving 130 people dead and hundreds wounded.

Al-Adnani is a Syrian who was born in the northern province of Idlib and is believed to be in his late 30s. He crossed the border and joined al-Qaida in Iraq, a precursor to IS, after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

In late June 2014, he formally declared the establishment of a caliphate, or Islamic state, stretching across parts of Syria and Iraq, under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and demanded allegiance from Muslims worldwide.

A powerful orator, he went on to become the voice of IS. He released numerous, lengthy audio files online in which he delivered fiery sermons urging followers to kill civilians in nations that supported the U.S.-led coalition against the group.

In Washington, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook confirmed that a U.S. airstrike on Tuesday targeted al-Adnani in the Syrian city of al-Bab, which is northeast of Aleppo.

“We are still assessing the results of the strike, but Al-Adnani’s removal from the battlefield would mark another significant blow to [the Islamic State group],” Cook said.

Aleppo is a current focal point of the civil war in Syria, where IS, Syrian Kurdish forces, Turkey-backed rebels and President Bashar Assad’s forces are vying for control. The province is frequently struck by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes as well as Russian air raids.

Evidence of genocide

In exclusive interviews, photos and research, the Associated Press has documented and mapped 72 mass graves in Iraq and Syria linked to Islamic State extremists. This is the most comprehensive survey so far, with many more expected to be uncovered as the Islamic State group’s territory shrinks.

In Syria, AP has obtained locations of 17 mass graves, including one with the bodies of hundreds of members of a single tribe all but exterminated when IS extremists took over their region.

For at least 16 of the Iraqi graves, most in territory too dangerous to excavate, officials do not even guess the number of dead. In others, the estimates are based on memories of traumatized survivors, Islamic State propaganda and what can be gleaned from a cursory look at the earth.

Still, even the known numbers of victims buried are staggering — from 5,200 to more than 15,000.

Satellites offer the clearest look at massacres such as the one at Badoush Prison in June 2014 that left 600 inmates dead. A patch of scraped earth shows the likely site, according to exclusive photos obtained by the imagery intelligence firm AllSource Analysis and shared with AP.

The Islamic State group has made no attempt to hide its atrocities. But proving what the United Nations and others have described as genocide will be complicated as graves deteriorate.