Islamic State’s emir dead after U.S. military raid in Syria

Islamic State emir Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi died during a daring overnight raid conducted by U.S. special operations forces in Idlib province in northeastern Syria on Thursday, according to the White House, ending a two-year hunt for the group’s leader.

Qurayshi’s long resume in jihad stretched back to his service in Saddam Hussein’s army, leadership roles with Al Qaeda and then the Islamic State. He served as the emir of the Islamic State since 2019.

President Biden announced that Qurayshi was killed in a counterterrorism raid in northwestern Syria early Thursday morning, stating: “Thanks to the skill and bravery of our Armed Forces, we have taken off the battlefield Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi — the leader of ISIS. All Americans have returned safely from the operation.”

During the operation, the U.S. military claimed that Qurayshi detonated a suicide bomb that killed him and twelve members of his family, including women and children.

The Islamic State has not confirmed Qurayshi’s death or named a replacement at this time. However, given that Qurayshi was held in detention by U.S. forces in Iraq in 2008, it is likely the U.S. military was able to confirm his identity using a combination of DNA, fingerprints, and other means.

Qurayshi became the leader of the Islamic State following the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2019. Baghdadi was killed in a similar U.S. raid in northwestern Syria under the Trump administration, in which he also detonated an explosive device to kill himself rather than be captured by American Special Forces.

The raid against Qurayshi occurred in Atmeh, a town close to the Turkish border and approximately 30 miles north of Idlib. His chosen hiding spot sparked intrigue, as Atmeh is home to Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an Al Qaeda-linked group led by Abu Mohammad al-Julani. HTS has conducted operations against Islamic State cells in Idlib province as it sought to eliminate competing jihadist rivals in its territory.

However, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was also found hiding in Idlib province when he was killed in 2019. Baghdadi’s safehouse was in Barisha, approximately ten miles south of the three-story cinder block building where Qurayshi was died. 

In 2019, after the death of Baghdadi, Qurayshi was named “Emir of the Faithful,” the official title for the leader of the Islamic State. In the official announcement, Qurayshi was described as a “worshiping working scholar,” indicating he was an ideologue and sharia official for the group.

After he was appointed emir, the State Department’s Rewards for Justice program offered a $10 million reward for information leading to the capture of Qurayshi, who was identified as Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla, and also known as Hajji Abdallah, and Abdul Amir Muhammad Sa’id Salbi.

Qurayshi has a long pedigree in jihad in Iraq and Syria. Prior to joining Al Qaeda in Iraq, he was educated as an Islamic scholar and served as an officer in Saddam Hussein’s army. Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam’s regime, Qurayshi joined al Qaeda where he served as a senior religious official and political leader.

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U.S. Forces captured Qurayshi in early 2008 and detained him at Camp Bucca. While in U.S. custody, Qurayshi was cooperative and shared information that led to the detention and elimination of his rivals within the Islamic State of Iraq (the successor of Al Qaeda in Iraq), including their No. 2 official at the time, Abu Qaswarah [See Generation Jihad Ep. 30 – The Would-be Caliph was a Snitch].

After being released by the U.S. (the date is unknown but he was likely freed sometime before Sept. 2009 when Camp Bucca was closed), Qurayshi quickly rejoined the Islamic State of Iraq where he rose through the jihadist ranks, including top leadership positions in Mosul. In 2014, he swore fidelity to Baghdadi and the Islamic State, where he was instrumental in the caliphate’s capture of Mosul in June 2014. Reports indicated that Qurayshi was a driving force behind the genocidal massacre against the Yazidis in Sinjar.

After years of serving as Baghdadi’s deputy, he was elected the new caliph of the Islamic State by the shura council just one week after Baghdadi’s death.

Despite widespread speculation that Baghdadi’s death would be the death knell for the Islamic State, Qurayshi maintained the organization’s cohesion even after it lost control of its territory in Syria. Qurayshi received unanimous acceptance from IS affiliates around the globe, suggesting that the global terror organization did not suffer a crisis of legitimacy after the death of Baghdadi.

Under Qurayshi’s leadership, the Islamic State expanded its presence in Africa, particularly in the Sahel where Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) has dramatically enhanced its influence since 2019. Furthermore, across Sub-Saharan Africa, the Islamic State opened new fronts for its global jihad, supporting affiliates in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mozambique. 

Just as Baghdadi’s death did not signal the demise of the Islamic State, it is unlikely that the loss of Qurayshi will severely degrade the group’s global operations, especially as many of its affiliates have become more decentralized. Qurayshi’s tenure as caliph proved the Islamic State’s capability to expand its influence no matter who ranks highest, yet another tangible example that jihadist organizations are consistently resilient in the face of decapitation strategies.

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