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Islamic State will choose a battle-hardened Iraqi as its next leader, say analysts

A view shows houses destroyed in past Islamic State militant attacks, in the town of Sinjar, Iraq January 24, 2022. Picture taken January 24, 2022. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily

Two Iraqi security sources and three independent analysts believe the next Islamic State leader will come from a small group of battle-hardened Iraqi jihadists who developed in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion.

The news: One commander who was proclaimed dead by Washington and Baghdad last year is among the prospective heirs to Abu Ibrahim al-Quraishi, who blew himself up during a U.S. mission to capture him in Syria last week.

  • Quraishi’s death, two years after IS’s longstanding leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in a similar raid in 2019, was another crushing blow to the militant Sunni Muslim group.
  • In response to increasing pressure from Iraqi and U.S.-led forces, Quraishi, an Iraqi, never publicly addressed his fighters or fans, eschewed electronic contacts, and oversaw a shift to combat in tiny decentralised units.
  • Those who follow Islamic State carefully expect it to identify a successor in the coming weeks, as the group that ruled wide swaths of Iraq and Syria with brutality from 2014 to 2017 continues to wage a tenacious and deadly insurgency. INSIGHT-The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has retaliated, assisted by a political vacuum in the Middle East.

What they’re saying: There are at least four probable successors, according to Fadhil Abu Rgheef, an Iraqi expert who advises the country’s security agencies.

  • “These include … Abu Khadija, whose last known role was Iraq leader for Islamic State, Abu Muslim, its leader for Anbar province, and another called Abu Salih, of whom there’s very little information but who was close to Baghdadi and Quraishi,” he said.
  • “There’s also Abu Yassir al-Issawi, who is suspected to be still alive. He’s valuable to the group as he has long military experience.”
  • Issawi was killed in an air strike in January 2021, according to both Iraqi authorities and the U.S.-led military coalition fighting Islamic State in Iraq and Syria at the time.
  • But, according to an Iraqi security official, there are significant suspicions that Issawi is still alive. “If he weren’t dead, he’d be a candidate; he’s tried and true in military attack preparation, and he has tens of thousands of admirers,” the official said.
  • Before convening to nominate or announce a successor, the official claimed, Islamic State was likely conducting a security sweep for potential leaks that led to Quraishi’s execution.
  • The new leader, according to Hassan Hassan, publisher of New Lines magazine, which has published material on Quraishi, will be an experienced Iraqi jihadist.
  • “If they choose one in the coming weeks they’ll have to choose someone from among the same circle … the group that was part of the Anbari group which operated under (the name) ISIS since the early days,” he said.

What happened: After 2003, the militants who conducted an increasingly Sunni Islamist, sectarian-driven insurgency against U.S. troops and Iraqi forces became known as Islamic State.

  • The Islamic State of Iraq, also known as al Qaeda in Iraq, was an offshoot of Osama Bin Laden’s global al Qaeda organisation and the forerunner to ISIS, which emerged from the chaos of Syria’s civil war across the border.
  • Baghdadi and Quraishi, both founding members of al Qaeda in Iraq, spent time in U.S. custody in the mid-2000s. One security officer and one army colonel said that none of the four prospective successors to Quraishi had been apprehended by U.S. forces.

What’s going on: Officials and analysts from a variety of countries concur that Islamic State is facing greater strain than it has ever faced and that its self-proclaimed caliphate will never be restored. They disagree, though, about how much of a setback Quraishi’s death means for the group.

  • Some believe that the war against ISIS will engulf the U.S. and its allies for years to come as it evolves into a permanent insurgency with new leaders poised to seize over.
  • According to some officials, Islamic State leaders have found it increasingly easier to move between Iraq and Syria since their territorial defeats in 2017 and 2019. This has been aided by a gap in regions of control between separate armed groups.
  • Officials from the security and military sectors said the 600-kilometer (372-mile) border with Syria made it difficult for Iraqi authorities to prevent extremists from infiltrating through underground tunnels.
  • Some IS officials, according to Lahur Talabany, a former counter-terrorism chief for Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, can travel across the entirety of Iraq.
  • When Islamic State established a caliphate in 2014, claiming authority over all Muslim countries and peoples, it separated itself apart from other like-minded groups like al Qaeda, and it became crucial to its mission.
  • The group, which is vehemently anti-Western, also exploits Sunni-Shi’ite tensions, claiming that Shi’ites are infidels who ought to be slaughtered.
  • According to Abu Rgheef, the new leader’s military credentials could be greater than Quraishi’s, who Iraqi officials believe was viewed by supporters as more of an Islamic legal scholar than a military man.
  • Despite Quraishi’s low profile and operational secrecy, observers believe his death will have an impact on the group’s troops.
  • According to Hassan, Quraishi’s removal would lower morale. “ISIS is also locked into personalities and who’s most trusted,” he said.
  • ISIS needs a figurehead, according to Aaron Zelin, a senior scholar at the Washington Institute. “Whenever a leader of the group is killed, your oath is to the (next) leader, the individual themselves, and not to the group.”
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