Islamic State announces death of its caliph, appoints successor

In a new speech released earlier today, the Islamic State’s official spokesman announced that the group’s leader, or so-called caliph, Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Quraishi, is dead. He also revealed the Islamic State’s newly chosen leader, an individual identified only as Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Quraishi. 

Abu Omar’s short speech was bereft of many details. The jihadist spokesman simply stated that Abu al-Hassan, who had replaced the previous caliph, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Quraishi, just earlier this year in February, was killed in combat against the “kuffar” [or infidels]. Abu Omar did not give any indication on the date nor on any particular location of Abu al-Hassan’s demise. 

U.S. Central Command confirmed in a statement released today that Abu al-Hassan was killed “in mid-October” in Syria’s southern Dera’a province during an “operation” that “was conducted by the Free Syrian Army.” CENTCOM did not provide any further information. 

Local news outlets in Dera’a, however, did report the killing of a prominent Islamic State leader in the area of Jassim, a town not far from the Israeli-held Golan Heights, in mid-October. According to the local reports, the leader, an Iraqi known as Abd al-Rahman al-Iraqi, or ‘Sayf Baghdad,’ was an Islamic State leader purportedly responsible for overseeing the group’s operations. It remains unclear, however, if this alleged individual, Abd al-Rahman al-Iraqi, was the same person known as Abu al-Hassan al-Quraishi. 

Muddying the waters more, the raid that killed Abd al-Rahman al-Iraqi, was claimed at the time by the Syrian Arab Army, which Russia stated it supported during the raid on the Islamic State safehouse. Russia also stated that the Syrian army killed twenty Islamic State members and officials, including many Iraqis. More independent media later confirmed that 20 Iraqi passports were indeed recovered in the safehouse. 

But given the date of the Jassim raid, and that prominent Islamic State leaders were reportedly killed, it is highly likely that this is the same raid referred to by CENTCOM. It remains unclear who actually undertook the raid as of the time of publishing. It is also likely the “Free Syrian Army” units stated by CENTCOM refers to those former Free Syrian Army units, such as the 8th Brigade, that are now nominally reorganized into the Syrian Arab Army structures as part of Russia-brokered agreements in Dera’a. 

The Islamic State spokesman also stated that the Islamic State’s executive council has thus appointed a new caliph, identified only as Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Quraishi. The only additional piece of information on this individual given by Abu Omar is that Abu al-Hussein is purportedly a veteran of the Islamic State’s long jihad.

Abu Omar then calls on the Islamic State’s members and supporters to renew their bay’ah [pledge of allegiance] to Abu al-Hussein. The Islamic State’s vast global network of so-called provinces are expected to produce photographic evidence of these pledge renewals in the coming days. 

The Islamic State, much like its former parent organization Al Qaeda, typically announces the death of its emir and his successor only after a period of mourning and consultation with its executive leadership council. For Al Qaeda, this period traditionally lasts about 40 days, though the Islamic State’s process is sometimes much quicker. 

For instance, Abu Ibrahim, the successor to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was announced just a week after the latter’s death. And Abu al-Hassan was announced as Abu Ibrahim’s successor less than a month after Abu Ibrahim was killed. The announcement of Abu al-Hussein also likely around a month after the death of Abu al-Hassan fits within this quick pattern. 

That Abu al-Hassan was also reported killed in combat detracts from the possibility that his identity was really an Iraqi jihadist, Bashar Khattab Ghazal al-Sumaidai. Al-Sumaidai was among the names floated as the potential real identity of Abu al-Hassan. But according to Turkey, it currently holds al-Sumaidai, though this remains unconfirmed by other states. If true, however, it is clear that al-Sumaidai was not actually the now-deceased caliph and his true identity remains unknown at this time. 

Turnover rate of the Islamic State’s leaders grows quicker

The turnover rate for the Islamic State’s caliphs has continually shortened since the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. His successor, Abu Ibrahim, held the position for a little over two years. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was the longest reigning leader at nine years.

Prior to the death of Abu al-Hassan, all leaders of the Islamic State and its predecessor groups, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Qaeda in Iraq, have been killed by US forces since 2004. 

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s predecessor, Abu Omar al Baghdadi, was the first leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, which was formed in late 2006. Abu Omar was killed during a joint U.S. and Iraq operation in 2010 alongside Abu Ayyub al-Masri, an Egyptian who was the second leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Al-Masri also served as the Islamic State of Iraq’s war minister but in reality led the Islamic State of Iraq with Abu Omar. 

Al-Qaeda in Iraq’s founder and first leader, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, led the group for two years before being killed in a U.S. raid in 2006. Zarqawi was a popular figure amongst jihadists and is known for sensationalizing his followers’ brutality by publishing videos of beheadings and other heinous acts. 

Abu al-Hassan is thus now the Islamic State’s shortest reigning caliph, ruling over the group’s global operations for just 10 months.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of The Long War Journal. Caleb Weiss is a research analyst at FDD's Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.

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