The extremist group known as the Islamic State, or ISIS, has lost its leader—again.
On Thursday, February 3, President Joe Biden announced that the ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurashi had been killed in a nighttime U.S. special forces raid in Syria.
More details will trickle out in the coming days. But we already know enough to look at some of the questions raised by Abu Ibrahim’s death: Who was he? Why was he living under the rule of a rival jihadi group? Will ISIS be able to produce a successor? Where will the group go from here?
Who Was Abu Ibrahim?
A forty-five-year-old Iraqi reportedly born in Mahlabiya, between Tal Afar and Mosul, the ISIS leader’s real name was Amir Mohammed Saeed Abderrahman al-Mawla, but he used many aliases. Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurashi was the name preferred by ISIS itself, but Biden referred to him as Hajji Abdullah, and his March 2020 terrorist designation listed a number of other noms de guerre, including Abu Abdullah Qardash and Abu Omar al-Turkmani.
From what little we know of him, Abu Ibrahim cut his teeth in the insurgency that followed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. He joined a predecessor of the Islamic State in the early days of the war and was at one point jailed by the U.S. government. By the time the group rebranded itself as a caliphate in 2014, Abu Ibrahim was already well established as a senior leader. When ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in October 2019, also by U.S. special forces in Syria, the organization issued a statement announcing Abu Ibrahim as his successor as the new IS caliph, a historical-religious title that lays claim to leadership of the global Islamic community.
The names “al-Qurashi” and “al-Hashemi” both signal descent from the prophet’s Arab tribe, the Qureish, which most Sunni Muslims traditionally view as a prerequisite for caliphhood. The fact that Abu Ibrahim hails from a Turkmen-dominated area of Iraq and has used aliases suggesting a non-Arab background has raised eyebrows. Ethnicity is a complicated thing, however, and tribal genealogies can often owe more to art than science. A 2021 investigation by Feras Kilani pointed to the mixed ethnic composition of tribes in the Tel Afar region and concluded that Abu Ibrahim probably did hail from an Arab-identity family. But what ultimately matters is that other ISIS leaders clearly felt that Abu Ibrahim was Qureish enough to be their caliph.
For all of his grand pretensions, the new leader remained curiously anonymous. The Islamic State tried to keep his identity secret, frustrating even some fellow jihadis, who opposed the idea of pledging allegiance to a faceless, nameless caliph. But as with the ethnicity issue, most ISIS subgroups and members seem to have shrugged off the controversy, trusting their leadership and ignoring the protestations of outsiders.
Abu Ibrahim’s real identity was eventually discovered by the Arabic-language daily al-Quds al-Arabi in November 2019, then revealed by intelligence sources to The Guardian in January 2020, and finally announced by the U.S. government in March 2020 through a public terrorism designation.
The U.S. military also took the opportunity to selectively declassify interrogation files for public viewing and research. Judging by the material released, the military had hoped to undermine Abu Ibrahim by portraying him as a collaborator who had ratted out fellow jihadis. But the stunt did not seem to work.
Unlike Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who had released several voice and video recordings during his 2010–19 reign, Abu Ibrahim kept his head down and was barely heard from at all in the two years and three months that he remained at the helm of the Islamic State. When he was finally found, it turned out he had been hiding in an area very close to that of his predecessor, in Syria’s Idlib province.
Why Was He Found in Idlib?
According to the information released so far, Abu Ibrahim died in a house in Atmeh, a small Syrian town on the Turkish border, where he had lived under a false name. It was only some fifteen kilometers from the village of Barisha, where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi killed himself to avoid capture by U.S. special forces in a similar raid in October 2019. (It remains unclear whether the two men lived in the area at the same time; Abu Ibrahim reportedly began renting his Atmeh house in early 2021.)
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad lost control over Idlib in the early years of his country’s civil war. These days, the area is controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadi group that was once part of ISIS and then sided with al-Qaeda against it, only to ultimately split from al-Qaeda and align itself loosely with Turkey, which has troops in the area.
HTS has been at war with ISIS since 2014. Turkey, also, has fought ISIS—so Idlib might seem like a strange place for the Islamic State to hide its leaders. But on closer inspection, it is not.
Since ISIS no longer controls any territory of its own, the group’s leaders need to hide somewhere. Compared to the alternatives, which include areas ruled by the Syrian and Iraqi governments or various Kurdish or Arab rebel groups, Idlib looks quite attractive.
After years of war, Idlib’s social structure has been torn up, scrambled, and overwhelmed by displaced people from other parts of Syria, creating a situation where a stranger can easily go unnoticed. On top of that, it is basically stateless territory. HTS keeps a rough sort of order by running checkpoints at key locations, hunting dissidents, and crushing challengers. It has also established a pseudo-independent governance arm called the Salvation Government, which it puppeteers from behind a curtain. But while that’s enough to remain dominant and stave off infighting, it offers very little granular control. The region has no functioning population registry, effective record-keeping, or coherent policing. No one even knows how many live in Idlib, though humanitarian estimates say it may be around three million people.
By and large, Idlib’s lesser rebel factions, foreign jihadis, and smugglers seem to be able to go about their business relatively unperturbed as long as they do not cause trouble for HTS. The place fizzes with underground activity, of which clandestine ISIS cells are only one part.
The internal factionalism of HTS and its past links to ISIS may also be complicating things. Their current bitter hostility notwithstanding, the two factions used to be one, and rebel politics can be intimately personal. Many veteran leaders of HTS and ISIS fought side by side in Iraq against the United States in their youth, and it’s far from inconceivable that some level of intermingling, infiltration, or individual collaboration could continue despite the general state conflict between them.
In short, while Idlib is not exactly a safe place for jihadi fugitives to work in, it seems more permissive than the likely alternatives. For all we know, Abu Ibrahim’s future successor may also be hiding in the area.
Will the Islamic State Appoint Another Caliph?
Abu Ibrahim’s February 3 killing is unlikely to have been an effective decapitation strike, of the type that could cause ISIS operations to unravel. ISIS is a tough group that always emphasized organization and ideology, not personality, and it has survived several leadership transitions in the past.
As in 2019, the group will probably just appoint another caliph, through some more or less genuine institutional process involving the consultation of senior scholars and possibly also based on a secret line of succession. The person chosen will be a man with some form of religious scholarly credentials, very likely a veteran of the Iraqi insurgency, and he will lay claim to Qureish ancestry. He will probably work under a fictional name, but that will be good enough for the core cadre of ISIS fanatics, which is what matters. The show can go on.
Still, though, leadership losses can be damaging even when they don’t amount to a decapitation strike. The depletion of senior talent is a problem for a central leadership whose main task is to project symbolic global authority over headstrong regional affiliates. It creates a risk of fissures and leaks, and it signals vulnerability and weakness.
For all of its pretensions to statehood and caliphal glory, ISIS is nowadays no different than al-Qaeda: a loose network of armed regional franchises, connected in a political sense through a global leadership that is more reminiscent of a public relations agency than a military supreme command.
To perform its task effectively, the ISIS central leadership will need to be visible and credible. Abu Ibrahim did not impress on either count, and his successor may find it even harder. When, year after year, the only visible aspect of your supposed global government is a weekly online newsletter, people will at some point start to roll their eyes at your claims of being a caliph.
What’s Next for the Islamic State?
Compared to its heyday six or seven years ago, ISIS is now a much diminished, hollowed-out organization. Since 2017, when it lost both Mosul and Raqqa, and 2019, when U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds crushed its last pocket of territory, it has operated mainly as a rural hit-and-run guerrilla.
An excellent recent study by Alex Almeida and Mike Knights demonstrates that there has been a slow decline of ISIS militancy in Iraq over the past few years, but also notes that the group may find more space to grow in Syria. Last month, a major assault on a Syrian prison revived the fears of a resurgence. The gruesome violence of the group’s international affiliates in places as far apart as Mozambique to Afghanistan also helps keep the ISIS specter alive. There is a certain species of terrorism pundit that will never tire of warning that ISIS is on the verge, brink, or even cusp of rebounding—but there is reason to doubt that alarmism.
Even though ISIS is likely to remain a persistent menace in both Syria and Iraq, and may flare up in more serious ways from time to time, any regrowth of its capabilities would likely be haphazard, fitful, and ultimately limited, with little resemblance to the apocalyptic surge of 2014. The spectacular ascent from near-defeat in 2010 to pseudo-statehood in 2014 relied on a unique set of circumstances that no longer apply. Iraq’s badly brutalized Sunni minority seems to have little interest in another insurgency; the Syrian war is a more or less frozen conflict; the ISIS caliphate is a damaged brand even in jihadi eyes; and the international community has grown attentive to the danger in ways that it was not before.
To be sure, a major war or breakdown in the region could open up new ungoverned space and help revive the group’s fortunes. It is a genuine risk, considering the socioeconomic crumbling of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, the tensions surrounding Iran’s nuclear program, and the possibility of a Donald Trump reelection in 2024. But although ISIS might gain from structural crises, it can’t cause them. It can only struggle on and prepare itself for some future opportunity.
Until then, ISIS will continue to face serious challenges in Syria and Iraq, and one of them is that it can’t seem to keep its own leaders alive.
header photo: This handout provided by the U.S. Department of Defense depicts the compound housing ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi in northwest Syria prior to a raid executed by U.S. Special forces on February 2, 2022 in Atmeh, Syria. Source: U.S. Department of Defense/Getty Images