ISIS lost its leader, but it still poses a threat - analysis

ISIS sells its followers on the idea of a future so-called caliphate, or Islamic state, and is not dependent on a charismatic leader.

A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa June 29, 2014. The offshoot of al Qaeda which has captured swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria has declared itself an Islamic "Caliphate" and called on factions worldwide to pledge their allegiance, a st (photo credit: REUTERS/STRINGER)
A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa June 29, 2014. The offshoot of al Qaeda which has captured swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria has declared itself an Islamic "Caliphate" and called on factions worldwide to pledge their allegiance, a st
(photo credit: REUTERS/STRINGER)

US Special Operations forces carried out a counterterrorism operation in northwestern Syria that killed Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, the leader of the Islamic State. US President Joe Biden declared that last week’s successful operation demonstrated that US forces could “take out” terrorist threats anywhere in the world.

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The over-a-decade-long civil war in Syria has drawn in international and regional powers, and become a battlefield for many warring opposing groups.

The conflict began in 2011 when Syrians took to the streets demanding social justice, erupting into a full-fledged armed conflict after a heavy crackdown by security forces on demonstrators protesting against the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The civil war has divided the country into a patchwork of territories, caused the deaths of thousands of people, displaced millions and created a massive humanitarian crisis of historic scope.

The Islamic State (ISIS) organization took advantage of the chaos and expanded its operations from inside Iraq to include Syria.

Shi'ite fighters fire a rocket toward Islamic State militants in Baiji, north of Baghdad, 2015 (credit: THAIER AL-SUDANI/REUTERS)Shi'ite fighters fire a rocket toward Islamic State militants in Baiji, north of Baghdad, 2015 (credit: THAIER AL-SUDANI/REUTERS)

Qurayshi, the Islamic State leader, was named caliph, or supreme ruler, after former Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died in similar fashion in a 2019 US raid. The black-clad leader of the ISIS transformed a ragged group of ruthless fighters into a global terrorist network that has attracted tens of thousands of recruits from 100 countries.

Qurayshi, captured in late 2007 or early 2008, spent months in an American detention camp in Iraq and was identified as detainee M060108-01 in confidential interrogation reports published last year. He worked as an informant for the US government providing information on al-Qaida in Iraq, the group that later became the Islamic State.

He was tracked based on intelligence into Idlib, a rural province in northwestern Syria that borders Turkey and is crowded with camps housing millions of displaced Syrians. Idlib, which has seen a steady stream of military offensives by Damascus, is known to be the last stronghold of opposition to Assad’s rule, whose forces have after more than a decade of civil war regained more than two thirds of the country with the help of its allies Russia, Iran and Hizbullah. ISIS lost its grip over a large swath of territory in Syria in 2019.

Qurayshi's demise, according to analysts, has dealt a huge blow to his organization. But unlike other jihadist groups, such as al-Qaida, which rely on a charismatic leader such as Osama Bin Laden, ISIS sells its followers on the idea of a future so-called caliphate, or Islamic state. This message has resonated well with its enthusiastic followers andsupporters, who see in the caliphate the possibility of a return to the golden era of Islamic rule.

Fawaz A. Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told The Media Line that even though Qurayshi’s death “represents a major setback for the Islamic State," it is not the final blow to its short and bloody existence.

"President Biden conspicuously avoided saying that Qurayshi’s death would constitute a strategic blow to the group. This omission is notable and represents the Biden administration’s clear-eyed understanding of the precarious status of the struggle against the Islamic State," Gerges said.

Ömer Özkizilcik, a foreign policy and security analyst based in Ankara, Turkey, told The Media Line that the "killing of its current leader will not have a significant effect either. The root causes for ISIS are the main driving forces behind ISIS. As long as they are not tackled, one leader will go, and another will come."

Özkizilcik explains that Qureshi's death constitutes an "intelligence success," but "it does not end the alienation of Sunni Arabs in Iraq and Syria. It does not resolve the issue of thousands of imprisoned children, or the overall poverty and social drama in Syria and Iraq that the group exploits to recruit new members."

However, with the trouncing of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and a relentless attack by the international community on its ideology, the group lost many of its fighters, and its recruitment has greatly declined.

Observers say the impact of the ISIS leader's death is likely to be limited. Gerges says it's too early to count it out.

"Qurayshi’s decapitation will not radically derail the group’s sprawling operations, which stretch across many theatres worldwide," he said.

Gerges, the author of several books, including a new edition of “ISIS: A History,” likens US officials bragging about the killing of Quryashi to former President Donald Trump’s triumphalism after the killing of Baghdadi, when he stated that “Baghdadi died like a dog,” and to former President George W. Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished”speech that took place on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean immediately after the 2003 US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.

"As Bush’s rosy proclamation proved to be embarrassingly short-sighted, so did Trump’s. In neither Iraq nor in Syria is the mission accomplished, and the Islamic State is not yet permanently defeated,” Gerges said.

The group still has a presence and supporters around the world and in conflict zones around the region. Its affiliate in Afghanistan is posing a major threat to Taliban rule and is able to inflict damage with its hit-and-run-style attacks. Similar affiliates have popped up in Egypt and Libya.

"The challenge facing the group is to find a replacement for Qurayshi who maintains continuity with the founders of the movement like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State leader. Qurayshi was a close companion to Zarqawi and Baghdadi, providing both legitimacy and continuity," Gerges said, adding that these relationships helped Qurayshi's credibility with followers as he was seen as an extension of the founders of the group.

"Most members of this founding generation have been eliminated, which raises serious problems about the future leadership and direction of the movement," Gerges also said. Zarqawi was the al-Qaida leader in Iraq who set up the group in 2004.

Özkizilcik says that the profile of the next candidate to head ISIS will be determined by the "internal power dynamics of the militants in an environment in which communication may take some time. However, it is likely that ISIS may remain committed to its origins and chose an Iraqi figure as its new leader."