A top ISIS official's death could have major implications for the future of the group

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Top ISIS Commander Killed

The death of the ISIS leader who oversaw external attacks could have significant implications for the group as it pivots from seizing territory in the Middle East to launching attacks on Western targets.

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The terrorist group announced on Tuesday that its spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, had been killed near Aleppo, Syria. His apparent loss marks a major blow to a group that's already struggling for long-term survival.

"This really sends the message out that ISIS is truly on the decline because he was such a figurehead," Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and former US Army officer and FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force special agent, told Business Insider. "[A]dnani was such a key person for building support, propaganda, and online recruitment. He was a key figure."

Adnani's death could hurt the group's attack capability in the long term, Watts said. And it's unclear whether ISIS has a successor in line to take over Adnani's role in the group.

RELATED: See images of battles with ISIS and conditions in Mosul:

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Battles with ISIS and conditions in Mosul
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Battles with ISIS and conditions in Mosul
A fighter of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) holds an ISIL flag and a weapon on a street in the city of Mosul, June 23, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer /File Photo
Kurdish Peshmerga forces sit in a military vehicle on the southeast of Mosul, Iraq, August 14, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
A member of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces takes his position in a military vehicle on the southeast of Mosul , Iraq, August 14, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Kurdish Peshmerga forces ride on military vehicles on the southeast of Mosul, Iraq, August 14, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
A fighter from the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), mans an anti-aircraft gun mounted on the rear of a vehicle in Mosul July 16, 2014. The banner on the bridge reads: "Welcome to the State of Nineveh; There is no God but God and Mohammad is the Messenger of God". REUTERS/Stringer /File Photo
Kurdish Peshmerga forces gather on the southeast of Mosul, Iraq, August 14, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Kurdish Peshmerga forces ride on military vehicles on the southeast of Mosul, Iraq, August 14, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Displaced people approach the Kurdish Peshmerga forces on the southeast of Mosul, Iraq, August 14, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
MOSUL, IRAQ - AUGUST 23 : Iraqi people who fled from their villages due to Daesh attacks are seen at the Dibege refugee camp in Mahmour region of Mosul on August 23, 2016. (Photo by Yunus Keles/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
An Iraqi man holds his national flag while civilians stand in the the street on August 24, 2016, as Iraqi forces took key position in the centre of Qayyarah, officials said, on the second day of an operation to recapture the northern town from Islamic State (IS) group jihadists. Qayyarah lies on the western bank of the Tigris river, about 60 kilometres (35 miles) south of Mosul, the Islamic State group's last major urban stronghold in Iraq. / AFP / MAHMOUD SALEH (Photo credit should read MAHMOUD SALEH/AFP/Getty Images)
FILE - In this Wednesday, March 9, 2016 file photo, Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi, center, arrives at a military a base outside Tikrit, 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq. Al-Obeidi has received a no-confidence vote from parliament just as Iraqi forces retook a key northern town near the Islamic State-held city of Mosul on Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016. He is the first sitting defense minister to receive a no confidence vote from parliament since the overthrow of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 2003. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban, File)
Iraqi security forces enter the town of Qayara, 70 kilometers (45 miles) south of Mosul, after defeating Islamic state group forces, northern Iraq, Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016. Iraqi forces retook the key town of Qayara, near a major air base south of Mosul from the Islamic State group Thursday, according to a statement issued from the office of prime minister Al-Abadi. (AP Photo)
In this Saturday, Aug. 13, 2016 photo, a soldier from the 1st Battalion of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces take part in a training exercise to prepare for the operation to re-take Mosul from Islamic State militants, in Baghdad, Iraq. Iraq's leaders have repeatedly promised that Mosul â which has been in the hands of IS militants for more than two years now â will be retaken this year. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
Iraqi Kurdish female fighter Haseba Nauzad (2nd R), 24, and Yazidi female fighter Asema Dahir (3rd R), 21, aim their weapon during a deployment near the frontline of the fight against Islamic State militants in Nawaran near Mosul, Iraq, April 20, 2016. When Islamic State swept into the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar in 2014, a few young Yazidi women took up arms against the militants attacking women and girls from their community. The killing and enslaving of thousands from Iraq's minority Yazidi community focused international attention on the group's violent campaign to impose its radical ideology and prompted Washington to launch an air offensive. It also prompted the formation of this unusual 30-woman unit made up of Yazidis as well as Kurds from Iraq and neighbouring Syria. For them, only one thing matters: revenge for the women raped, beaten and executed by the jihadist militants. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah SEARCH "WOMEN NAWARAN" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
Female Peshmerga fighters hold their weapons at a site during a deployment near the frontline of the fight against Islamic State militants in Nawaran near Mosul, Iraq, April 20, 2016. When Islamic State swept into the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar in 2014, a few young Yazidi women took up arms against the militants attacking women and girls from their community. The killing and enslaving of thousands from Iraq's minority Yazidi community focused international attention on the group's violent campaign to impose its radical ideology and prompted Washington to launch an air offensive. It also prompted the formation of this unusual 30-woman unit made up of Yazidis as well as Kurds from Iraq and neighbouring Syria. For them, only one thing matters: revenge for the women raped, beaten and executed by the jihadist militants. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah SEARCH "WOMEN NAWARAN" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
Smoke rises after airstrikes from the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State militants in a village east of Mosul, Iraq, May 29, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
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Colin P. Clarke, a terrorism expert and political scientist at the RAND Corp., speculated that it won't be easy finding a replacement for Adnani.

"Replacing Adnani will be hard," Clarke tweeted. "He had logistical/comms expertise which isn't easily replicated but learned through tacit knowledge transfer."

Clarke called Adnani's death "a severe blow to the group's external-operations network."

Bridget Moreng, an analyst who studies ISIS's global strategy, noted that in addition to leading external operations, Adnani was thought to be the next in line to lead ISIS in the event of "caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's death.

And because it's not clear who might be taking over Adnani's job, there could be some infighting that would further fracture the group.

"Key question is how IS will adjust to Adnani's death: smooth succession or power vacuum/infighting for position," Moreng tweeted. "The latter is likely."

But terrorist groups like ISIS are generally equipped to survive the deaths of top leaders. Al Qaeda, for instance, is still a major player in the world of terrorism despite the death of its founder, Osama bin Laden.

"These leadership strikes, they're important," Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an expert on terrorist groups, told Business Insider. "Killing top leaders definitely weakens the organization. But a lot of the time, they have people to replace them that nobody knew about."

Al Qaeda "has replaced its external operations chief over and over again," Joscelyn said.

"The loss of leadership definitely weakens organizations, and it may lead to a further degradation of ISIS's capabilities, but we've seen them adapt and survive in the past," he said. "These organizations aren't built around one or two guys. They have a deep bench of leadership."

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ISIS also has plenty of lower-ranking operatives responsible for coordinating external attacks.

"A lot of times the middle managers are the ones who make things happen," Joscelyn said. They "have people who have detailed local knowledge who they rely on for tactical planning in operations in the West."

Still, ISIS has recruited its base of support around its message of "remaining and expanding," not simply surviving. And Adnani's death could hurt morale within the group as it continues to lose territory in Iraq and Syria. ISIS might try to execute more plots against the West to head off any drop in morale or perception that the group is being defeated.

"What you may see is an actual increase in attacks," Watts said. "Whoever [Adnani's] successor is may want to be more aggressive. If there's any in the pipeline, they might be accelerated by Adnani's death."

Past the short term, however, Adnani's death might not inspire many future attacks. Unlike Anwar al-Awlaki, the notorious preacher and Al Qaeda recruiter, Adnani didn't speak English or build up a library of speeches online that supporters — or curious individuals — could access.

"When you think about it, who will be talking about Adnani in two years?" Watts wondered. "I don't know."


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