America's Most Wanted: The ISIS leader at the top of the US kill list

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He is America's most wanted — the number one name on the government's kill list of ISIS leaders, say senior U.S. military and intelligence officials.

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Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi may be the face of ISIS, but Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the terror group's director of external operations, is the man most likely to cause harm in the West. The U.S. wants al-Adnani dead because he's considered the author of the strategy of wanton murder that has left more than 500 dead in attacks around the world since October 10 — and apparently helped inspire last week's massacre in San Bernardino.

"He is at the top of the list," confirmed a senior intelligence official.

"We are tracking him," said a senior U.S. military official. "We believe he is in Iraq."

Laith al-Khouri of Flashpoint Intelligence, an NBC counterterrorism analyst, said the rationale for the U.S. interest in killing Adnani is simple.

"Adnani has been the main voice behind issuing ISIS threats to the West," said al-Khouri. He is also dangerous, said al-Khouri, because his charisma draws new followers to the group. "He is so admired and glorified by jihadists worldwide that he stands as a primary point of recruitment."

Since the November attack in Paris that killed 130, U.S. officials have come to see the 38-year-old al-Adnani as the ISIS version of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the al Qaeda leader who masterminded the September 11 attacks. Counterterrorism officials say al-Adnani likely "greenlighted" the complex Paris operation, working through Abdelhamid Abbaaoud, who ran the operation and then died in a police raid.

But in addition to those acts of violence directed or "greenlighted" by ISIS, sympathizers with the group have followed tenets established by al-Adnani to mount their own assaults. Al-Adnani encouraged attacks around the world in a video statement published online in September 2014, the day after the U.S.-led coalition launched its first airstrikes against the ISIS "caliphate" in Syria and Iraq.

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America's Most Wanted: The ISIS leader at the top of the US kill list
FILE - This undated file image posted on a militant website on Jan. 14, 2014, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows fighters from the al-Qaida linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa, Syria. slamic State militants are barricading down for a possible assault on their de facto capital Raqqa, hiding among civilian homes and preventing anyone from fleeing, as international airstrikes intensify on the Syrian city in the wake of the Paris attacks. For many, the threat of missiles and bombs from the enemies of Islamic State is more of an immediate threat than the vicious oppression of the jihadisâ themselves. (AP Photo/Militant Website, File)
In this photo released on May 4, 2015, by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, Islamic State militants pass by a convoy in Tel Abyad town, northeast Syria. In contrast to the failures of the Iraqi army, in Syria Kurdish fighters are on the march against the Islamic State group, capturing towns and villages in an oil-rich swath of the country's northeast in recent days, under the cover of U.S.-led airstrikes. (Militant website via AP)
This undated file image posted on a militant website on Jan. 4, 2014, which is consistent with other AP reporting, shows Shakir Waheib, a senior member of the al-Qaida breakaway group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), left, next to a burning police vehicle in Iraq's Anbar Province. For the al-Qaida breakaway group that overran parts of Iraq this week, the border between that country and Syria, where it is also fighting, may as well not even be there. The group, wants to establish a Shariah-ruled mini-state bridging both countries, in effect uniting a Sunni heartland across the center of the Mideast.
This file image posted on a militant website on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014, which is consistent with AP reporting, shows a convoy of vehicles and fighters from the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters in Iraq's Anbar Province. The Islamic State was originally al-Qaida's branch in Iraq, but it used Syria's civil war to vault into something more powerful. It defied orders from al-Qaida's central command and expanded its operations into Syria, ostensibly to fight to topple Assad. But it has turned mainly to conquering territory for itself, often battling other rebels who stand in the way. (AP Photo/militant website, File)
This undated file image posted on a militant website on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows fighters from the al-Qaida linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa, Syria. Moderate Syrian rebels are buckling under the onslaught of the radical al-Qaida breakaway group that has swept over large parts of Iraq and Syria. Some rebels are giving up the fight, crippled by lack of weapons and frustrated with the power of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Other, more hard-line Syrian fighters are bending to the winds and joining the radicals. (AP Photo/Militant Website, File)
FILE - This image posted on a militant website on Saturday, June 14, 2014, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, appears to show militants from the Islamic State group with truckloads of captured Iraqi soldiers after taking over a base in Tikrit. Iraq won the battle to retake the city of Tikrit from the Islamic State group, backed by a coalition of the unlikely in Iranian advisers, Shiite militias and U.S.-led airstrikes, but the country now faces what could be its most important battle: Winning the support of the Sunni. (AP Photo via militant website, File)
This undated file image posted on a militant website on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014 shows fighters from the al-Qaida linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa, Syria. Once a vibrant, mixed city considered a bastion of support for President Bashar Assad, the eastern city of Raqqa is now a shell of its former life, transformed by al-Qaida militants into the nucleus of the terror group's version of an Islamic caliphate they hope one day to establish in Syria and Iraq. In rare interviews with The Associated Press, residents and activists in Raqqa describe a city where fear prevails, music has been banned, Christians have to pay religious tax in return for protection and face-veiled women and pistol-wielding men in jihadi uniforms patrol the streets. (AP Photo/militant website, File)
In this May 26, 2015 photo, Bilal Abdullah poses for a portrait in the village of Eski Mosul in northern Iraq, nearly a year after Islamic State militants took over the village. In the Islamic State's realm, a document testifying that one has "repented" from a heretical past must be carried at all times and it can mean the difference between life and death. Abdullah learned that not long after the extremists took over his home village. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)
In this Wednesday, May 27, 2015 photo, a girl holds a broom in the town of Eski Mosul, Iraq, which had been under the control of the Islamic State group for months. Most residents stayed in the town after it was liberated by Kurdish Peshmerga forces in January 2015. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)
In this photo released on March 7, 2015 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, a member of the Islamic State group holds the IS flag as he dismantles a cross on the top of a church in Mosul, Iraq. (Militant website via AP)
In this photo released on Feb. 8, 2015 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, a member of Islamic State group's traffic police, right, writes a ticket to a driver, left, in Raqqa, Syria. Taxi drivers or motorists usually play the IS station on their radios - music, which is forbidden, can get the driver 10 lashes. (Militant website via AP)
In this photo released on May 4, 2015 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, people stand at the window of a media distribution point to receive CDs from Islamic State militants, right, in Mosul, Iraq. (Militant website via AP)
In this Sunday, May 17, 2015 photo, Sheikh Abdullah Ibrahim poses with his son while holding an Islamic State group-issued death certificate - all that he has left of his wife, Buthaina Ibrahim, an outspoken human rights activist and official, in the village of Eski Mosul, northern Iraq. There is no grave, no idea what was done with her body after the extremists took her from their home one night and killed her in a purge after overrunning the village north of Mosul, Iraq in June 2014. Given her government ties, IS fighters quickly demanded she apply for a repentance card. "She said she'd never stoop so low," her husband said. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)
In this photo released on April 30, 2015 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, new recruits of the Islamic State train in Mosul, northern Iraq. (Militant website via AP)
In this photo released on Dec. 24, 2014 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, a member of the Islamic State group writes in Arabic, "we are a people whom God has honored with Islam," on a newly painted wall in Raqqa, Syria. (Militant website via AP)
In this Wednesday, May 27, 2015 photo, a resident sits on a hill overlooking the town of Eski Mosul, Iraq. The hole next to him is a former grave that was opened up by the Islamic State group militants and used as a sniper hideout. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)
In this photo released on July 2, 2014 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, Iraqi men gather around Islamic State group officials to sign cards testifying that they have "repented" from their heretical past, in Mosul, northern Iraq. In a series of interviews by Associated Press journalists, former prisoners and residents who lived under IS rule describe how one of the richest, most sophisticated terrorist organizations in the world accumulates money, terrifies residents, indoctrinates children and buys loyalties. (Militant website via AP)
In this Wednesday, May 27, 2015 photo, Salim Ahmed, a former Iraqi Army member, holds the "repentance card" he received from the Islamic State group in June 2014 shortly after the militants took over his home village of Eski Mosul in northern Iraq. The document is part of the apparatus of control the Islamic State group has constructed across its self-declared "caliphate," the territory it conquered in Syria and Iraq. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)
In this photo released on May 14, 2015 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, a member of the Islamic State group's vice police known as "Hisba," right, reads a verdict handed down by an Islamic court sentencing many they accused of adultery to lashing, in Raqqa City, Syria. (Militant website via AP)
In this photo released on Jan. 14, 2015 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, Islamic State militants kill a man they accused of being a homosexual by throwing him off a building in Syria's northeastern province of Hassakeh. In a series of interviews by Associated Press journalists, former prisoners and residents who lived under IS rule describe how one of the richest, most sophisticated terrorist organizations in the world accumulates money, terrifies residents, indoctrinates children and buys loyalties. (Militant website via AP)
In this photo released on March 7, 2015 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, a member of the Islamic State group destroys an icon of the Virgin Mary and Jesus on the wall of a church in Mosul, Iraq. In a series of interviews by Associated Press journalists, former prisoners and residents who lived under IS rule describe how one of the richest, most sophisticated terrorist organizations in the world accumulates money, terrifies residents, indoctrinates children and buys loyalties. (Militant website via AP)
In this photo released on Jan. 31, 2014 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, women in niqabs - enveloping black robes and veils that leaves only the eyes visible - sew niqabs, which are required for women in Islamic State-held territory, in a factory in Mosul, Iraq. (Militant website via AP)
In this photo released on Feb. 10, 2015 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, two Syrian citizens, right, sit in the office of an inheritance judge of Islamic State group, in the town of al-Tabqa in Raqqa City, Syria. (Militant website via AP)
In this photo released on April 17, 2015 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, a member of the Islamic State group's vice police known as "Hisba," patrols a market in Raqqa City, Syria. The Arabic words on the vest read, "The Islamic State - Hisba (vice police)." (Militant website via AP)
In this photo released on Feb. 10, 2015 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, two women sit in the office of an Islamic State group judge, center, at an Islamic court in al-Tabqa town in Raqqa City, Syria. (Militant website via AP)
In this photo released on January 31, 2014 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, members of the Islamic State group, left, distribute niqabs, enveloping black robes and veils that leave only the eyes visible, to Iraqi women in Mosul, northern Iraq. In areas controlled by the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, women must not only be covered, but usually are required to wear all black, with flat-soled shoes; for men, Western clothes or hair styles _even hair gel _ can draw suspicion. (Militant website via AP)
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"If you can kill a disbelieving American or European — especially the spiteful and filthy French," said al-Adnani, "or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be."

Al-Adnani's resume helped him reach the top ranks of ISIS. He was one of the first foreign fighters to oppose U.S. Coalition Forces in Iraq, crossing the border from his native Syria into Iraq in 2003. He swore an oath of allegiance to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Al Qaeda in Iraq leader later killed by U.S. fighter-bombers. He also reportedly was captured in 2005 and taken into custody at a camp run by the U.S. military, but was released after five years in 2010. He was arrested and held the whole time under an alias.

At the time of his release, he was not seen as a significant player. Not long afterwards, however, he began appearing as a media spokesman for ISIS, becoming the "leading conduit for the dissemination of official messages," as the FBI described him. When ISIS declared a caliphate in June 2014, it was al-Adnani who issued the statement calling on "Muslims in all places" to emigrate to the Islamic State. And it was al-Adnani who rebuked al Qaeda leadership when they challenged the legitimacy of the Islamic State, opening a jihadi schism.

By September 2014, al-Adnani's portfolio had apparently expanded. He became director of external operations. On September 21, the morning after coalition bombers attacked ISIS targets for the first time, al-Adnani responded with a call for Muslims to attack virtually any citizen of the coalition.

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Over the next few weeks, there were a series of attacks by "lone wolves" that law enforcement and intelligence officials believe were a direct result of al-Adnani's call to arms: an axe attack on police officers in Queens, N.Y., a deadly assault outside the Canadian Parliament building in Ottawa, and the murder of a Canadian soldier in Quebec by a driver who deliberately drove his car into a small group of soldiers. Now, suggest U.S. intelligence officials, there is another more sophisticated wave.

For all his bravado, al-Adnani is notoriously camera-shy. American officials believe he avoids photos and video because of security concerns. His video message urging attacks on the "filthy French" was actually just audio over a brief still image of him posing with a gun, and his face was blurred in the official ISIS video celebrating the founding of the caliphate.

In the next few weeks, expect the U.S. to step up its operations against the ISIS hierarchy, targeting the group's leaders with Predator drone strikes or snatch-and-grab operations.

In the past six months, the U.S. has killed a half dozen ISIS leaders — on Thursday, both ISIS and the White House confirmed that ISIS finance chief Abu Saleh had died in a November coalition air strike. The U.S. has also killed Abu Sayyaf, the group's "oil emir"; Haji Mutazz, its second-in-command; Junaid Hussain, a key recruiter and social media guru; Abu Nabil, leader of ISIS in Libya: and Mohammed Emwazi, a.k.a "Jihadi John," the notorious ISIS executioner in Iraq and Syria seen beheading hostages on video.

But the man the U.S. government really wants is al-Adnani. And considering the U.S. record against the individuals who held the same job in al Qaeda, the drones and special forces may succeed. Six times, the U.S. killed or captured Al Qaeda's director of external operations, starting with the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Pakistan in 2003 and extending, most recently, to Nasir al-Wuhayshi, killed in a U.S. airstrike in Yemen this summer.

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