If the Islamic State had to lose their top spokesman and Syria commander, they’re likely thinking there’s no time like the present.

It was telling not only how ISIS’ news agency announced unprompted that Abu Muhammad al-Adnani was “martyred” during a Syria operation, but that they even had their weekly newspaper, al-Naba, ready to go with a glossy tribute.

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Adnani was al-Naba’s cover boy in a previously unreleased photo ripped from a jihadist casting call portfolio: He’s intently surveying something unseen – the troops, the caliphate, the West, no matter – with his hands resolutely clasping the straps of his tactical vest. Loyal black-masked fighters stand over each shoulder, guns aloft. By the next day, ISIS fanboys online had swapped their Twitter avatars for his action-star mug and even photoshopped heavenly rays into the photo.

And using the online propaganda network of websites and social media that ISIS has used to bust virtual borders, ISIS supporters quickly distributed a 2014 biography of Adnani lauding him as “ballista of the Islamic State.” It painted a picture of a golden child of jihad who was a voracious student of the Quran and a trainer who crafted master jihadists during the era of al-Qaeda in Iraq with his signature program that "graduated a large number of students who have taken prominent positions in the Islamic State.” And, of course, it highlighted how Adnani was held for years at a U.S.-run camp in Iraq.

U.S. officials are understandably excited about taking Adnani off the battlefield. The Pentagon had been hunting him “for some time,” press secretary Peter Cook confirmed, as Adnani also managed the Islamic State’s external operations – attacks, recruitment and inspiration beyond Iraq and Syria. “His elimination would be a significant blow to ISIL, significant blow to ISIL's leadership,” Cook declared as the Pentagon was verifying the results of the airstrikes Wednesday, “and importantly, a significant step in reducing ISIL's ability to conduct external attacks outside of Iraq and Syria.”

Well, yes and no. On one hand, killing Adnani is a valuable hit because it took out a charismatic, influential ISIS voice. On the other hand, it’s a great recruiting tool because we took out a charismatic, influential ISIS voice.

Osama bin Laden still recruits five years after his death. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi still recruits a decade after his death. And Anwar al-Awlaki definitely recruits – especially his fellow Americans – five years after his death. All it takes is a body of work, a few good sound bites and martyrdom, preferably at the hands of the United States.

No wonder ISIS was so eager to distribute the news of Adnani’s death. As they face an eventual coalition assault to retake Mosul and they’re pushed out of their Libyan stronghold by determined pro-government forces, the terror group knows it needs to expand its provinces. And their overall recruitment strategy places heavy emphasis on jihadists working alone or in groups, conducting ISIS attacks without leaving the security of their own country.

Simply put, ISIS needs butts in the seats. In waltzes the glorious martyrdom of their No. 2 to do the talking.

"If you can kill a disbelieving American or European — especially the spiteful and filthy French, 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," Adnani once said. Now would-be recruits will hear that directive over and over along with nasheeds dedicated to their fallen hero, video testimonials of those who knew or trained under him, calls to be inspired by his lengthy jihad career and challenges to take revenge on his killers.

Is Adnani’s death a blow to ISIS leadership? Yep. Do they prepare for transitions in the event a commander should fall? Terror groups know these days that there’s no time to bat an eye.

ISIS’ PR machine, for one, shouldn’t skip a beat with the death of its influential official spokesman. An ISIS e-book published just months after the declaration of the caliphate stressed that each province is responsible for its own media – videos, photo essays, websites, tweets – to keep the operation diffuse and harder to take out. By not having one ISIS website, the book stated, “no one can hack it and claim an online victory."

And with that media, ISIS will be trumpeting the life and times and death of Adnani, hoping that his passing will give a shot in the arm to morale and recruitment at a time they could really use fighters.

Bridget Johnson is a fellow with the Haym Salomon Center. A veteran journalist, Johnson is  a contributor at NPR and D.C. bureau chief for PJ Media.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.