Lt. Gen. Robert P. Otto, Air Force chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, said leadership strikes have only a short-term effect: "We cannot kill our way out of this war." (US Air Force/Aaron Stout)

U.S. drone operators had been stalking the baby-faced British terrorist for days with infrared cameras and other sensors before the order came to kill him.

As night fell on April 25, a U.S. warplane dropped a guided bomb that obliterated the SUV occupied by 23-year-old Raphael Saihou Hostey near Mosul, Islamic State’s stronghold in Iraq.

Hostey, a recruiter for the militants, was targeted by a U.S. military campaign that has singled out and killed more than 120 Islamic State leaders, commanders, propagandists, recruiters and other so-called high-value individuals so far this year, officials said.

The leadership attacks have picked up recently due to intelligence collected by special operations teams on night raids, from captured militants, and from intercepted of email, cellphone and other communications.

The focus on Islamic State’s command and control structure, including its recruitment and funding systems, has helped weaken the Sunni extremist group as Iraqi, Syrian and Kurdish forces press the militants on the battlefield.

The targeted killings are so well known that militants have built "counter-drone screens" of cardboard and plywood…

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