ISIS Appoints New Leader to Stand in for Wounded Al-Baghdadi

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the so-called caliph of the Islamic State, is believed to have been wounded in an airstrike in March.

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Image made from a video purporting to show ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivering a sermon at a mosque in Iraq. Credit: AP

The Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL) has appointed a former Iraqi physics teacher as its temporary leader, Newsweek reported on Wednesday.

Abu Alaa Afri is standing in for the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who reportedly was seriously wounded in a U.S. coalition airstrike in western Iraq in March, leaving him incapable of carrying out his day-to-day duties as caliph.

The information about Afri's appointment was provided by Dr Hisham al Hashimi, an Iraqi government adviser, in an interview with Newsweek.

“After Baghdadi’s wounding, [Afri] has begun to head up Daesh [the Arabic term for ISIS] with the help of officials responsible for other portfolios,” Hashimi said. “He will be the leader of Daesh if Baghdadi dies.”

Afri is believed to operate out of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, which was occupied by ISIS last year.

Little is known about Afri, also known as Haji Iman, a teacher who rose through the ranks of ISIS to become Baghdadi’s right-hand man.

“He was a physics teacher in Tal Afar [a city in northwestern Iraq] and has dozens of publications and religious (shariah) studies of his own,” Hashimi said. “He is a follower of Abu Musaab al-Suri [a prominent jihadi scholar].”

Hashimi described Afri as " smarter, and with better relationships" than Baghdadi. "He is a good public speaker and has strong charisma. All the leaders of Daesh find that he has much jihadi wisdom, and good capability at leadership and administration.”

Before becoming Baghdadi’s deputy, Afri was a key coordination link between Baghdadi and his inner circle and also his emirs in different provinces across the group’s extensive caliphate in Syria, Iraq and Libya. “Appointment as a wilayat [province] coordinator is an indication of profound trust and this position is essentially the last link between ISIS’s upper echelon and its lower ranks,” Hassan added.

While details about Afri’s personality are limited, it is believed that he leans toward reconciliation with rival extremist group al-Qaeda and its Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and prefers that ISIS’s leadership structure is composed half of Arabs and half of foreign members of the group.

The group, which swept across Syria and Iraq to capture key towns and cities last summer, have suffered a number of setbacks as a result of the U.S.-led coalition’s military campaign, being forced from the Syrian city of Kobane and losing the Sunni-majority city of Tikrit in Iraq.