The death of the leader is another blow for the Islamic State, but it is not the end

BEIRUT, Lebanon — For a man looking to disappear, the Islamic State leader appeared to have done everything right. He hid far from wher...


BEIRUT, Lebanon — For a man looking to disappear, the Islamic State leader appeared to have done everything right.

He hid far from where his enemies awaited him. He never left the house, relying on trusted couriers to communicate with his remote underlings. He was the only leader of the group who never released a video or voice address for fear it would make it easier to follow. Most of his staunchest supporters wouldn’t have recognized him on the street.

But the American commandos came for him anyway, and on Thursday the leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, blew himself up during a raid on his hideout in northwestern Syria, US officials said.

US leaders hailed Mr. al-Qurayshi’s death as yet another wound to a formidable organization whose reach and power had already been significantly diminished. But terrorism analysts have warned that killing another leader will not erase a group whose members have continued to seek refuge and plan attacks in chaotic parts of the globe.

“This is another blow to an organization that just a few years ago cast a shadow over the entire region,” said Pratibha Thaker, Middle East and Africa editorial director at The Economist. Intelligence Unit. “But I think everyone is wondering deep down how important it really is to take out the leader since the organization is so decentralized.”

The United States has invested great resources in the assassination of leaders of terrorist organizations. US forces withdrew Osama Bin Ladenthe founder of al-Qaeda, Abu Musab al-Zarqawiwho led al-Qaeda in Iraq, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadithe predecessor of Mr. al-Qurayshi as head of the Islamic State.

While such attacks generate dramatic headlines, the groups they sought to undermine have often resurfaced in new and more powerful forms or simply replaced old heads with new ones, Hydra-style.

The assassination of Mr. al-Qurayshi deprived the Islamic State of a key religious and military authority at a time when the group had already been driven from its territory and had lost a large number of fighters. Now he faces a potential leadership vacuum.

But terrorism experts said the group had become more diffuse and decentralized, allowing it to continue. Even though it no longer has the power to hold territory as it once did, which diminishes its ability to present itself as a “state”, it has proven that it can still carry out devastating coordinated military attacks.

In recent weeks, its fighters in Iraq have killed 10 Iraqi soldiers and an officer in a nighttime attack on an army post and beheaded a policeman on camera. In Syria, the jihadists attacked a prison in an attempt to free thousands of their former comrades and occupied the compound for more than a week before a US-backed Kurdish-led militia drove them out.

However, the group is only a shadow of itself.

At its height around 2015, ISIS controlled territory the size of Britain in Syria and Iraq and replaced al-Qaeda as the richest and most dangerous terrorist organization in the world. He controlled major cities, collected taxes, provided public services and built a war machine.

Its propagandists have attracted aspiring jihadists from around the world. Its agents have led and inspired deadly attacks in the United States, Europe and elsewhere.

The loss of its last piece of territory in 2019, after four and a half years of war, was a big defeat. Now it is a caliphate in name only. And persistent attacks by the United States and its partners in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere have disrupted its funding networks and resulted in the deaths of many of its executives.

Mr al-Qurayshi was named the group’s leader, or caliph, in 2019 after his predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, blew himself up in a raid by US special forces on his hideout in the north -western Syria.

From the start, Mr. al-Qurayshi lacked the public profile of his predecessor, and even his supporters knew little about his background. The United States filled some gaps by releasing notes from interrogation sessions dating from his arrest by US forces in Iraq in 2008.

But revelations that he said he served in the Iraqi army under Saddam Hussein and obtained a master’s degree in Islamic studies in 2007 were overshadowed by what appeared to be his desire to inform about his fellow jihadists.

After Mr. al-Qurayshi took control of ISIS, the United States put a bounty of up to $10 million on his head and said he “helped lead and justify the abduction, slaughter and trafficking of members of minority Yazidi religious groups” in Iraq and oversaw “the group’s global operations”.

As it searches for a replacement, ISIS no longer has a large pool to draw from because years of concerted counterterrorism operations by the US and its partners have killed many of the group’s inner circle, Islamic State expert Hassan Hassan written Thursday in New Linesan online magazine.

“Leaders he can trust are a dying breed – literally,” he wrote.

This leadership vacuum, the waning attractiveness of international jihadism, and the growing strength of enemy governments and competing militant groups could hamper the group’s ability to rebound, he wrote. “The death of its leader under these circumstances will further disorient the group and weaken its ability to focus on international terrorism.”

The group already seems less dangerous in Iraq, according to a recent attack data analysis by Michael Knights, Jill and Jay Bernstein Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and his colleague, Alex Almeida.

They found that ISIS attacks increased in 2019 and 2020, but have since declined, both in quantity and quality.

“For now, at the start of 2022, the Islamic State insurgency in Iraq is at an all-time low, with a recorded number of attacks that rivals the lowest on record,” they wrote.

They said increased Iraqi security deployments in rural areas, frequent counter-terrorism raids and “decapitation strikes” against ISIS leaders had contributed to the decline.

But terrorism analysts are reluctant to write off the group, noting it was seen as a depleted force just a few years before it came back in force and consolidated its control over entire cities in Syria and Iraq in 2014.

The group has long found it easier to operate in failed states, conflict zones and poorly governed places, and its fighters still have many such territories to choose from, including in Afghanistan and parts of africa.

In Syria, it remains most active in the east, which has been hit hard by the 10-year civil war and is only loosely controlled by a Kurdish-led militia whose administration is unrecognized. internationally and lack of resources.

The lure of chaotic places likely explains why Mr al-Qurayshi sought refuge in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, miles from his organization’s former strongholds.

The region is one of the last territories still controlled by the rebels who set out to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, and it is teeming with millions of people who fled from elsewhere during the war, which facilitates the integration of strangers.

The future of the Islamic State may depend less on the personality of its leaders than on the opportunities for expansion that present themselves and the ability of the group to take advantage of them.

“What we have seen in the jihadist movement as a whole over the past two decades is that it is very pragmatic in pursuing its goals,” said Shiraz Maher, the author of a book on the history of the global jihadist movement. “Their next step is to continue to hold on and bide their time and react to realities as they unfold.”

Asmaa al-Omar contributed report.

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Newsrust - US Top News: The death of the leader is another blow for the Islamic State, but it is not the end
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