The United States is claiming another victory over Islamic State, saying it tracked, targeted and killed one of the terror group's "top five" leaders during a drone strike in northwestern Syria.
U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) identified the senior IS official as Maher al-Agal, describing him as the leader of the group's Syrian province and as a critical liaison between IS core and its affiliates around the world.
"Al-Agal was responsible for aggressively pursuing the development of ISIS networks," CENTCOM said in a statement, using another acronym for the terror group.
In a statement Tuesday, U.S. President Joe Biden praised the strike for sending "a powerful message."
"(Al-Agal's) death in Syria takes a key terrorist off the field and significantly degrades the ability of ISIS to plan, resource and conduct their operations in the region," Biden said.
The U.S. shared few details about the strike outside the town of Jindayris in Syria's Aleppo province, which also seriously injured one of al-Agal's close associates.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring organization, said al-Agal was hit by a missile while riding a motorcycle. It also said that he had been staying in northwestern Syria since 2020 under the protection of Ahrar al-Sharqiya, a Syrian militant group allegedly backed by Turkey.
VOA could not independently confirm the Syrian Observatory's reporting.
CENTCOM said an initial review found no civilians were harmed during the operation.
Tuesday's strike is the latest in a series of blows against IS that appears to have whittled away at the group's core leadership.
Less than a month ago, U.S. forces swooped into the northwestern Syrian city of Jarablus and arrested Hani Ahmed al-Kurdi, described as a key "operational facilitator" for IS cells in Syria and also a rising star within the terror group's ranks.
In late May, Turkish officials claimed they had captured the new IS emir, Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, during a raid in Istanbul, less than three months after he was named as the replacement for al-Qurashi, who blew himself up in February during a U.S. raid in northwestern Syria.
Neither U.S. nor Western counterterrorism officials have confirmed Turkish claims that the individual in custody is Abu al-Hassan, but multiple officials speaking to VOA on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss intelligence have said the person is a senior IS official.
In the meantime, the pace of anti-IS operations in the region appears to have been picking up, with the Iraqi military and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) claiming success in what they have described as a series of significant operations over the past month.
And the intelligence gathered during the successive operations appears to be paying off, with hopes that Tuesday's strike will yield even more dividends.
"Any successful strike like this, taking out any ISIS leader, is going to disrupt them," a U.S. military official told VOA. "You'll see the effects work their way down."
Former officials and other experts agree IS's core leadership may be in significant trouble.
"The Americans and others are sort of pulling on a thread," a Western counterterrorism expert told VOA, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified intelligence.
"They're starting to run out of long-standing senior leaders," the expert said. "ISIS is not able to insulate itself from that."
Others, like Colin Clarke, director of research at the global intelligence firm The Soufan Group, agree.
"We've eliminated so many of the leaders, we're now down to that kind of second tier (of IS leadership)," Clarke told VOA.
This group of senior IS leaders may be running out of places to hide.
"They keep finding these guys in northwestern Syria, which tells me at one point, they felt comfortable there, maybe kind of blending in," Clarke said. "Now, it's really just a matter of there's only a few areas in the country where they can operate."
But the main U.S. partner on the ground in Syria still worries IS has the ability to make a comeback.
"ISIS isn't over yet," Elham Ahmad, executive president of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), SDF's political wing, said, speaking through an interpreter Tuesday at a virtual forum hosted by New Lines Institute.
"It is still operating in many regions," she said, noting a growing number of attempts by the terror group to free fighters and family members from prisons and displaced persons camps.
"ISIS is preparing for something," Ahmad added, accusing Turkey of giving IS more space to operate by pressing ahead with military operations targeting mainly Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria.
"Everyone can see that all the ISIS leaders who have been targeted by the global coalition are staying and located in the regions that are occupied by Turkey," she alleged.
Ahmad also accused Turkey of forcing the SDF to divert resources from anti-ISIS operations.
Turkey Wednesday rejected the allegations, blaming the SDF for fomenting instability.
"SDF is a terror syndicate and a Syria branch of PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party)," a Turkish diplomatic official told VOA via email. "Their operating manual relies on terrorism on the ground and black propaganda in the international press against us."
Like Ankara, the U.S. has designated the PKK as a terrorist organization, though Washington has sought to distinguish between the PKK's Syrian branch and the SDF.
"Turkey and the Syrian Interim Government have been committed to fighting Daesh and figures speak for itself," the Turkish diplomat said, using the Arabic acronym for IS. "We have so far eliminated more than 4,500 Daesh terrorists."
But analysts like The Soufan Center’s Clarke believe despite Turkey's efforts, there is room for improvement.
"Could they go after these (IS) networks a lot harder? Absolutely," he said. "But then they also face a backlash."
"There seems to be this kind of very uneasy, tacit, 'We won't bother you if you don't bother us,' type of unspoken agreement," he said.