The Islamic State confirmed that its previous leader and self-styled “caliph”, Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Quraishi, was killed earlier this year. In doing so, it also disputes claims he was killed by Turkish intelligence.
After announcing Hussein’s death, the Islamic State also declared that Abu Hafs al-Hashimi al-Quraishi is its new leader. Much like the Islamic State’s previous two leaders, Abu Hafs’ true identity is shrouded in mystery. The Islamic State has suffered significant attrition of its top leadership; for instance, Abu al-Hussein is the fourth leader killed since October of 2019.
The Al Furqan Media Foundation, the official propaganda arm of the Islamic State, announced Abu al-Hussein’s death on Aug. 3, 2021, but denied he was killed by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT), which claimed responsibility for his death earlier this year.
Instead, the Islamic State claimed that Hay’at Tahir al Sham (HTS), the current iteration of the former al-Qaeda branch in Syria and a rival of the Islamic State, killed Abu al-Hussein and turned his body over to MIT agents. Additionally, the Islamic State said that its previous spokesman, Abu Umar al-Muhajir, was captured and likely aided in the identification of Abu al-Hussein.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on April 28 that Abu al-Hussein blew himself up as the MIT raided his safehouse in the town of Jinderes in the northeastern Syrian province of Aleppo. However, Abu al-Hussein’s status was unclear and U.S. officials would not confirm Erdogan’s report.
It appears in actuality, however, it was the work of HTS, which only took over Jinderes from Turkish-backed rebel factions in March. Irony should not be lost in the fact that HTS is itself an offshoot of both al-Qaeda and even the Islamic State. In recent years, HTS has taken a more hardline approach against other jihadis in Idlib as it seeks to consolidate its power in a Taliban-like apparatus.
The Islamic State then announced Abu Hafs al-Hashimi al-Quraishi as “the Emir of the Believers and Caliph of the Muslims.” The Islamic State’s new spokesman, Abu Hudhayfah al-Ansari, issued the statement. Though Abu al-Hussein was killed in the April operation, it is unclear when Abu Hafs was actually appointed as the new leader.
Jihadist organizations, particularly the Islamic State, go through a period of mourning and then consultation in choosing the next leader before publicly announcing a successor in leadership.
The Islamic State has been intentionally vague about the identity of its last three emirs. Little is known about Abu Hafs, just as little was known about his last two predecessors, Abu al-Hussein and Abu al-Hassan.
Islamic State adapts to leadership attrition
The Islamic State has suffered significant attrition of its top leadership cadre since the group’s founder and first emir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed in a U.S. raid in October 2019. Abu Ibrahim, Baghdadi’s successor, served as emir for two and a half years before he was killed. Abu al-Hassan served just eight months, and Abu al-Hussein just six months.
The Islamic State “continues to face leadership challenges due to ongoing counter-terrorism pressure,” the United Nations Security Council’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team noted in its latest report on the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, which is dated July 25.
This leadership attrition has caused the Islamic State “to adopt a flat command and control structure; the role of the overall leader has become less relevant to the group’s functioning,” according to the Monitoring Team.
The Islamic State appears to have given more power and authority to the head of its General Directorate of Provinces (GDP).
The last leader of the General Directorate of Provinces, Ali Jasim Salman al-Juburi, who is also known as Abu Sara al-Iraqi, “influenced [Islamic State] strategy, played a key role in personnel assignment, including the previous two [Islamic State] leaders, and directed external operations and finances.”
Juburi, who was killed in an airstrike in February 2023, was described as the Islamic State’s “shadow leader.” It is the GDP that actually oversees and manages most of the Islamic State’s external affairs, including the coordination of various affiliates around the world through a system of so-called ‘regional offices.’
While member UN states described Juburi’s death as a “significant blow” to the Islamic State, “his loss appears to have disrupted the group only for the short term.” One state identified his possible successor as Ammar Mohamed Ibrahim al-Juburi.
According to the Monitoring Team, the Islamic State is relocating some of its leaders from Idlib to the Syrian province of Dara’a and to the remote desert area known as the Badiya along the “Syrian-Iraqi border area with Anbar governorate, where the group is increasing activities and exploiting the porous border.” The Islamic State’s previous emir, Abu al-Hassan, was himself killed in Dara’a, however.
So though another Islamic State leader and self-professed caliph has come and gone, this leadership attrition is unlikely to have any real impact on the group’s worldwide activities as it learned to rely more on the GDP to run most of its affairs.
And the foot-soldiers on the ground around the world will still pledge bay’ah [allegiance] to yet another anonymous figurehead.
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