leadership crisis of the Islamic State | Foreign Affairs
It’s only February and already the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) has had a tough year. Islamic State supporters quickly went from cheering to a grand prison break in northeast Syria only to learn days later that the group’s reclusive leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi , had been killed in a daring raid by US special operations.
Prior to Qurayshi’s death, there were growing fears that the Islamic State might reemerge. Beyond the prison break in Syria, where Islamic State fighters had managed to maintain control of the facility for several days despite a heavy military assault by US and Kurdish forces, there were other disturbing signs of the group’s vitality. A February report by the UN Security Council Sanctions Monitoring Team expressed concern over ISIS’s growing power in various central African provinces and its resurgence in Afghanistan now that troops Americans left. In Iraq and Syria, even though ISIS carries out less guerrilla activity, there are still strong political and sectarian divisions, rural areas stressed by climate change and post-pandemic economic difficulties, all of which could fuel a return of the Islamic State.
With Qurayshi dead, however, the prospect of a serious comeback anytime soon seems less likely. Targeted assassinations rarely put an end to movements like ISIS, but it has imposed a major leadership transition on the terrorist organization. The United States has killed many of its leaders in the past, but the timing of this loss is particularly bad for the group: it suffers from dwindling cash, a thin bench of replacement leaders and a decline of operations in its heartland of Iraq. . ISIS’s top leaders in Iraq and Syria must now make a strong case for why the organization’s franchises around the world should pledge allegiance to a leader who is likely to be as anonymous as Qurayshi. Their success or failure will decide the fate of ISIS as a global enterprise linking jihadist groups from West Africa to East Asia.
A HIGH-TURN JOB
Both locally and globally, the Islamic State is united by the general acceptance by its members of the legitimacy of their leader. The Islamic State must now choose its fourth leader in history, and there is reason to believe that this will be its most difficult transition.
In 2004, the infamous Abu Musab al-Zarqawi pledged his small group to Osama bin Laden, and the group became known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Months after Zarqawi was killed in a US airstrike in 2006, his followers formed the Islamic State of Iraq, which later expanded into Syria and renamed itself ISIS. In doing so, they established leadership succession practices that the group has followed to this day.
As its leaders explained in a publication published in 2006, the group would adopt the practices of selecting caliphs used in the first Islamic state (established in 622 CE), citing religious scholars and historian Ibn Khaldun as justification for a re-adoption of traditional practice. Taking inspiration from this advice, the leaders of the Islamic State formed a leadership selection committee made up of representatives of the various groups that merged to create the proto-state. They agreed that the most important criterion for choosing a paramount chief was superior religious knowledge. And as an unwritten requirement, they established the practice of selecting a documented descendant of the Prophet Muhammad’s Quraysh tribe, a collection of clans that traditionally ruled Mecca. The idea was to strengthen the legitimacy of the succession process by linking it to the tribal identity of the first four caliphs who ruled after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.
The next leader of ISIS will likely be announced in the coming weeks.
Zarqawi’s successor as head of the new Islamic State of Iraq was Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, an al-Qaeda veteran in Iraq whose lineage dates back to the Quraysh tribe of the Prophet Muhammad. He was killed in 2010 by US and Iraqi special ops. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Qurayshi was similarly selected after several weeks of silence and later led a resurgence of the group and the declaration of the Caliphate. He was killed by US special operations forces in 2019 in Syria, and replaced by Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi after a period of five days.
Given this historical precedent, it is very likely that the next leader will be announced in the coming weeks and will have a resume like his predecessors: he will be a religious scholar and a veteran jihadist of the Qurayshi lineage who is part of of the ruling circle of the Islamic State. . What the group hopes to follow is a series of public renewals of the pledge of allegiance to the Caliph by members of the Islamic State and its global affiliates. After all, ISIS’s claims to authority rest on recognition and acceptance by voters.
This time around, however, ISIS may face obstacles in the succession process given the issues surrounding Qurayshi’s tenure. Like his predecessor, Qurayshi took over during a bearish cycle but failed to see major successes during his tenure. He had risen rapidly through the ranks of ISIS since 2007, and in 2014 was one of Baghdadi’s top religious advisers who reportedly advocated the genocide of Yazidi communities in Iraq. Qurayshi had his leg amputated while serving Baghdadi, possibly following a 2015 airstrike targeting top Islamic State leaders. But his reign was marred by stories of his days as an American informant, especially after the US government published interrogation records showing that he had provided voluntarily detailed information about the beginnings of the Islamic State to his American captors when he was in prison in Iraq. He even leaked information that helped the US military kill his supervisor and Al-Qaeda in Iraq. 2 Chief, Abu QaswarahIn 2008.
In many ways, Qurayshi took over an organization with problems in Iraq and Syria, but was fine prepare by his predecessor to manage a global insurgency. Qurayshi continued to support the group’s far-flung franchises with money and advisers, a gamble that kept supporters’ spirits high as the group struggled to gain ground in its key historical areas. As ignominious in life as in death, Qurayshi’s last act was to kill his wife and children. when he detonated explosives during the American raid. In its wake, ISIS faces a perilous path.
ASK FOR HELP
ISIS’s inner circle now finds itself in a precarious position with two basic options for a new leader, each opening up a range of possibilities. The first, and most likely, is that the group follows its established succession processes but lands on a leader who is markedly different from its predecessors. For example, the group might choose a non-Iraqi leader, perhaps a Syrian, a choice that would only confirm a slight shift in its center of gravity from Iraq to Syria. Another possibility is that the next caliph emerges from the new generation of the Islamic State – someone who, unlike his predecessors, has no connection with the founding fathers who first fought against the occupiers in Iraq more than ten years ago. That could improve his support among the current generation of supporters who are far more passionate about the plight of Sunni Arabs in Syria than the Iraq war of two decades ago.
The second option is for the Islamic State to abandon its established practices in selecting Qurayshi’s replacement, suggesting that its leadership is divided or too hidden. It is conceivable, for example, that Daesh does not acknowledge the death of its leader, suggesting that the United States is (again) mistaken about the identity of its leader. Alternatively, a leader may circumvent the established succession process and claim authority on their own – an almost certain sign of internal instability. And any new leader, whether through a formal process or not, could find his authority challenged. In all of these irregular scenarios, there is a very real threat of infighting, which would make the ISIS threat more volatile if less consistent.
ISIS is more vulnerable today than it was three years ago.
Beyond the parochial interests of the Core and the Leadership Council, the ISIS franchises of the world are waiting to see who the new leader is, as the choice is tied to why they joined ISIS in the first place – the perceived legitimacy of a world caliph in the tradition of the Islamic empire. A year before the 2019 murder of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the West African province openly deliberate the validity of his pledge to the Caliph and determined that he was still legitimate because he had been chosen by the esteemed selection board. Barely a year later, he renewed its commitment to the unknown Qurayshi with all the other provinces, a coup for the ISIS succession process. After Qurayshi’s short two-year tenure, during which they haven’t heard from him once, will they collectively decide to double down on their denominational bet? And will they receive the same support from the new, and probably just as anonymous, leader? Some groups may decide that the notoriety of being an ISIS franchise isn’t worth the risk and go it alone.
US President Joe Biden got a well deserved victory with the killing of Qurayshi. In a test of its passage to a “above the horizonIn a counterterrorism approach, the Pentagon led a special operations raid from Iraq to the shadow of the Turkish border. The operation is a great success. And that justifies the continued pressure on an Islamic State that is more vulnerable now than it was three years ago, as it has lost territory and suffered the death of Baghdadi.
This victory came at the right time. The debacle of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, as well as the Chinese aggression against Taiwan and the Russian aggression against Ukraine, caused the allies to wonder if the United States could do two things at the same time: deter the big powers and fight the jihadists. With Qurayshi’s death, however, European capitals breathed a long sigh of relief. If ISIS were planning terrorist attacks in European cities, chances are they will now be a much lower priority for the group as it prepares for the drama of having to choose a new leader againm