Death of IS leader Al-Qurayshi

Ahmed Kamel Al-Beheiry, Tuesday 8 Feb 2022

The elimination of top Islamic State group leader Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashimi Al-Qurayshi has come at a critical time in US domestic politics, writes Ahmed Kamel Al-Beheiry

Death  of IS leader  Al-Qurayshi

On 3 February, US President Joe Biden announced that Islamic State (IS) group leader Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashimi Al-Qurayshi had been killed during a US-led Special Operations raid in the vicinity of Atme in the Syrian province of Idlib near the border with Turkey.

The Pentagon has provided some details about the tactics and intelligence involved in the operation.

According to the information, US forces planned to arrest Al-Qurayshi, but he killed himself by detonating an explosive vest that also killed his wives and some of his children. Questions remain as to exactly how, where, and when the raid was carried out and how Al-Qurayshi’s death will affect the IS group.

According to Iraqi sources, there was close coordination between Iraqi and US intelligence agencies in order to pinpoint the IS leader’s location.

“The killing of the terrorist IS group leader was an extension of the great efforts made on the part of all of the components of the Iraqi security forces, which have killed dozens of terrorist leaders and operatives in military operations in Iraq, arrested hundreds of them, and gathered and analysed intelligence that ultimately led to the destruction of the lair of the head of the organisation,” said Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi on his Twitter account.

There has also been speculation that some militias hostile to the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in Idlib had furnished intelligence leading to Al-Qurayshi’s whereabouts.

The Hayaat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) group commanded by Abu Mohamed Al-Julani and other Turkish-backed militias hold sway in Idlib. There has been speculation that there was intelligence coordination involving not just the US and Iraqi and Kurdish intelligence, but also the armed factions in Idlib, raising further questions about the circumstances of Al-Qurayshi’s death.

The operation targeting the IS leader appears to be similar to that targeting the terrorist group’s former leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, on 27 October 2019. US Special Forces also used the same tactics to take out Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May 2011. All three operations involved US elite forces and intelligence cooperation between the US and its regional partners.

The elimination of the IS leader has come at a critical time in US domestic politics. Midterm Congressional elections in November are approaching, and with Republican Party candidates gaining an edge over Democratic ones in key states, jeopardising the Democrats’ control of Congress, the operation could boost the popularity of the Biden administration and improve the prospects of the Democratic Party as a whole.

The announcement of Al-Baghdadi’s death in October 2019 also preceded a crucial presidential election year in the US, leading some to ask whether the announcements of Bin Laden’s death in 2011 and that of Abu Mosaab Al-Zarqawi in 2006 were similarly timed for electoral purposes.

Some regional powers had begun to question the US commitment to the fight against terrorism in the region when Washington withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021, reduced its forces in Iraq, and halted the activities of the International Coalition to fight IS in Iraq.

Analysts have suggested that the US withdrawal has helped IS to stage a return in Iraq and elsewhere in the region, leading to a surge in terrorist operations. The special operation to take out Al-Qurayshi thus appears to be geared to reassure Washington’s regional allies regarding the US commitment.

The raid against Al-Qurayshi also took place days after the IS attack against the Ghwaryan Prison in Hasakah in northeastern Syria, when thousands of IS operatives were freed. This was one of the most intensive terrorist operations IS has staged in years, and the spectre of so many of its terrorist fighters on the loose has clearly alarmed Washington and its allies.

Atme, where the late IS leader was hiding, is only 10 km from where Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi was taken out. There have been questions as to why this location has been chosen by IS leaders and whether its proximity to the Turkish border is important.

Many have speculated that the location was chosen because of the possibility of escaping across the Syrian-Turkish border. However, Idlib is an area subject to Turkish influence and that of HTS and other Turkish-backed militias, so it could have been a risky choice.

It has been suggested that Al-Qaeda affiliate Hurras Al-Din (Guardians of Religion) had a role in hiding the two IS leaders. If so, this raises questions regarding the relationship between IS and Al-Qaeda.

The International Coalition against IS and the Iraqi government succeeded in killing or arresting numerous IS fighters in 2020 and 2021, limiting the candidates to replace Al-Qurayshi.

At present, three names have been mooted as possible successors apart from Al-Qurayshi’s official spokesman. One is Jumaa Awad Al-Badri, chair of the IS Shura Council and brother of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. He could help sustain the cohesion of the organisation and forestall schisms, observers say.

There have been reports that some branches of IS have wanted to “internationalise” the leadership of the group to allow the heads of non-Iraqi branches to assume its highest post.

Another name that has been put forward for leadership is Ayyad Al-Jamili, a possible successor after Al-Baghdadi’s death. However, the most likely contender is Abu Safa Al-Rifai, the most powerful figure in IS and a mostly invisible figure.

Al-Rifai, real name Mazen Noheiri, was born in the 1970s and served as a colonel in the Iraqi army under former president Saddam Hussein before the Saddam regime was overthrown by the US-led invasion in 2003.

One of the three founders of IS, Al-Rifai’s importance to the group has increased since the death of such second-tier commanders as Abu Muslim Al-Turkomani and Abdel-Rahman Al-Qadouli.

Al-Rifai laid the foundations for the IS intelligence bureau. Structured along the lines of such agencies in totalitarian regimes, it is responsible for surveillance and intelligence gathering, as well as suicide missions conducted by cells or “lone wolves” abroad.

It is also responsible for protecting the leaders of the group. Al-Rifai operates behind the scenes and has reportedly never shown his face to second-tier leaders.

Some non-Iraqi figures from Tunisia and elsewhere in North Africa have been suggested as possible candidates for the succession. However, choosing a non-Iraqi successor could court difficulties that might jeopardise the group’s already shaky structure and cohesion.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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