Analysis |

Killing of ISIS Chief Was an American Success. But the Group Will Live On

The U.S. operation in Syria sends a message to the Shi’ite militias in Iraq and the Houthi rebels in Yemen, but it’s unlikely to deter the Islamic State

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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U.S. President Joe Biden speaking in the White House on the U.S. raid in Syria against ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, Thursday.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaking in the White House on the U.S. raid in Syria against ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, Thursday.Credit: Sarah Silbiger / Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Hajji Abdullah Qardash, aka Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi or, to use his real name, Amir Mohammed Said Abdel Rahman al-Mawla, has been “taken off the battlefield,” according to U.S. President Joe Biden. The killing of the Islamic State leader, heir to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is undoubtedly an intelligence and operational success, even if it took three years to find him.

According to intelligence assessments, al-Qurayshi commanded around 10,000 militiamen who have carried out dozens of attacks in Iraq and Syria. He was also apparently responsible for the break-in at the al-Sinaa prison in the northern Syrian town of Hassakeh last month.

The irony is that he was already in American hands by late 2007 or early 2008, having been arrested in Iraq. He was repeatedly interrogated at length and showed a great willingness to cooperate.

According to records of these interrogations that were released in April and quoted in The Washington Post, he was a model prisoner who went out of his way to help his interrogators. He told them about the hiding places of other senior terrorists, provided personal profiles of them, revealed the names of contact people and was generally an intelligence officer’s dream.

But he apparently stopped cooperating in July 2008. That’s also when his interrogations stopped, apparently because he was no longer providing anything of value. Later, he was released from prison.

Rescue workers inspecting a destroyed house following an operation by the U.S. military in the Syrian village of Atmeh, Thursday.Credit: Aaref Watad / AFP

In 2010, he joined Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who took command of the Islamic State. He became al-Baghdadi’s deputy four years later and oversaw the organization’s war of conquest in Iraq and Syria.

In 2017, al-Qurayshi was wounded in an airstrike on Islamic State targets carried out by either the Syrian or the Russian air force. He and al-Baghdadi were in al-Bukamal on the Syrian-Iraqi border at the time.

Shortly before al-Baghdadi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in October 2019, he named Al-Qurayshi as his replacement. That made al-Qurayshi the person responsible for charting the Islamic State’s strategy after its defeat.

Al-Qurayshi had to fill al-Baghdadi’s big shoes amid criticism from other senior Islamic State officials who opposed his appointment. He also had to chart the organization’s course at a time when it no longer controlled the large swaths of land and populations that had financed its activities.

During his three years at the helm, several of the organization’s key funding sources were cut off, mainly the taxes it collected from residents of the territories it controlled and merchants who operated there.

Many Islamic State members took refuge in other countries or returned to their homelands. And al-Qurayshi’s obscurity didn’t help him recruit new fighters, who wanted a well-known and admired leader.

He had to adjust the organization’s efforts to these new circumstances. The Islamic State went from being a de facto state to a group that relies on cells to carry out occasional operations, usually devoid of any strategic plan. Most of these operations were aimed either at rival organizations like Al-Qaida and its offshoots and the Taliban in Afghanistan, or at government targets in places like Iraq, Sinai, Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan.

Lessons from the war on Al-Qaida

Just as happened after al-Baghdadi was killed, the Islamic State is now expected to quickly announce its choice of a new leader. It may even hold an inauguration to show its ability to keep functioning regardless of who its leader is.

Killing a leader – who actually blew himself up to avoid being captured by U.S. special forces – won’t dismantle the Islamic State and is unlikely to stop it from carrying out terror attacks, which have become more frequent over the past year. But it might cause schisms in the group that could prove no less dangerous than the attacks carried out when it was a united organization.

One important lesson the West learned from its war on Al-Qaida, especially after the assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2014, is that when an organization falls apart into independent offshoots that don’t have to coordinate their operations with a centralized leadership, a much greater intelligence effort is needed to identify their cells and scatter their fighters. This decentralization also creates a risk of more accidental civilian casualties during airstrikes, so the methodology of the war on terror has to be revamped.

In some countries like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iraq there either never has been or no longer is any international effort, so the battle against Al-Qaida, and later against the Islamic State as well, has been left to national governments. International efforts have focused on thwarting terror attacks on Western countries, or at most on intelligence cooperation with Arab and Muslim governments.

These local wars show the many difficulties in waging an ongoing struggle against terrorist organizations, especially the Islamic State. For instance, the Iraqi army displayed a mind-blowing lack of prowess when the Islamic State attacked one of its bases near the city of Diyala last month, killing 12 soldiers who never even fired back.

In Sinai, Egypt has been fighting a long war whose end is nowhere in sight against the Islamic State’s strongholds in the north of the peninsula. In Yemen, there isn’t anybody to fight the Islamic State, just as there isn’t anybody to fight Al-Qaida, which has set up one of its strongest branches there. And in Libya, with help from local tribes, the Islamic State has seized control of important oil fields in the country’s south.

A local commander who recruits his own fighters and finances their activities runs each of these branches. They rarely coordinate with the central leadership, with local circumstances dictating the agenda.

Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, who died this week as U.S. special forces attacked his position in northwest Syria.Credit: Handout / AFP

Russia and Turkey, too

Syria offers an eye-opening example of the difference between a successful assassination of a terrorist leader and a successful war on terror. Groups with roots in Al-Qaida have flourished there.

Though Islamic State leader al-Baghdadi allied with Al-Qaida’s leader in Syria, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, in 2011 at the start of the Syrian civil uprising, the two quickly parted ways as al-Julani’s group strengthened. Al-Julani formed the Nusra Front, whose Syrian rebels with a radical Islamist ideology grew in popularity.

When the Islamic State captured parts of northern and eastern Syria, interests between the Syrian regime and the Nusra Front aligned, as did interests between the two and Kurdish forces in the north. The common goal was to drive the Islamic State out of Syria.

After Nusra disintegrated, a new radical force opposed to al-Julani emerged, but al-Julani maintained his ties with Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri. A violent power struggle ensued between these two factions, especially after Nusra militants had to abandon strongholds across Syria and regrouped in Idlib province.

Nusra managed to unify a host of militias and small groups. Together, they formed what is now known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or the Levant Liberation Committee, which launched talks with Syria and Turkey. Despite being a descendant of Al-Qaida, it enjoys Turkey’s unofficial sponsorship.

The group is at the center of the dispute between Russia and Turkey. Russia demands that Turkey expel the group’s fighters from Idlib or disarm them, as the two countries agreed. Turkey is in no rush to fulfill its part of the bargain. It demands in exchange that Russia stay away from the Syrian Kurds, whom Turkey considers a terrorist organization threatening its national security.

Al-Julani’s group is now trying to portray itself as legitimate. A few weeks ago he announced that he doesn’t intend to attack targets in the West and that his main battle is against the Assad regime in Syria. It seems al-Julani aims to be taken off the list of terror groups and to receive official recognition.

Meanwhile, a splinter group led by Abu Hamam al-Shami accuses al-Julani of collaborating with the Americans and abetting an attack on its bases that killed two senior leaders. The Biden administration appears to distinguish between the various terror groups. It attacks some, mainly Al-Qaida factions, while others like the Levant Liberation Committee operate without fear.

The atomization in Syria lays bare the diplomatic dilemmas in any coordinated fight against terror. Consider the U.S. attack on the Levant Liberation Committee. It can be interpreted as American-Russian cooperation against Turkey’s interests, precisely when the United States is striving to present a tough line against Moscow. Attacks on the Islamic State, however, are trouble-free in this regard.

Also note the way Biden characterized the help American forces received in the operation against the Islamic State leader and the wider fight against the group. Such praise is aimed at Ankara, making clear to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Washington will not only keep supporting the Kurds in Turkey but also sees them as a strategic partner. Biden thus put Erdogan in a corner where he can’t attack Biden for supporting the Kurds, who are America’s heroes in the fight against the Islamic State.

The U.S. strike also sends a message to more distant rivals. It puts on notice Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen who continue to attack targets in the United Arab Emirates. That is, the United States may be withdrawing troops from the Middle East but its war on terror goes on. U.S. forces can hit precise targets in Iraq and Yemen as they did in Syria.

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