Qurayshi Is Replaceable

Just days after the Islamic State stormed a prison in northeastern Syria in its most lethal attack since its territorial defeat three years ago, the United States issued a strike against the leader of the group: Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. In an overnight raid in Atmeh, a town in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province, U.S. troops confronted his security entourage and faced resistance for two hours. Before they could get their hands on Qurayshi, he apparently blew himself up, killing his family as well. Thirteen people, mostly women and children, died in the attack, including at least three civilians.

U.S. President Joe Biden boasted that the successful operation would protect the American people, the United States’ allies, and “make the world a safer place.” The suggestion was that Qurayshi was something more than merely the titular head of a declining terrorist organization. His record shows he was an ambitious terror strategist. But it would be wrong to boast that his death marks some sort of turning point for the battle against jihad.

Qurayshi was the nom de guerre for Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla, who was born in al-Muhalabiyyah, a majority Turkmen area in Tal Afar, Iraq. Qurayshi had a long history with the Islamic State and joined the group while it was still the Islamic State of Iraq, the successor of al Qaeda in Iraq. He studied Islamic law at the University of Mosul and was approached by what was then the Islamic State of Iraq to teach its recruits in 2007. He was among the Islamic State’s hard-liners who propagated the hardest interpretation of Islam and backed the enslavement and genocide of the Yazidi minority. He rapidly rose through the ranks and took on influential responsibilities, such as mediating disputes, nominating judges, and passing rulings based on strict readings of sharia law. He briefly also served as the deputy leader of the group.

Qurayshi’s future as a jihadi hardly seemed so auspicious in 2008, when he spent time in the U.S.-run detention center Camp Bucca in Iraq. He was even described as a “model prisoner” by authorities, receiving praise not just for handing over cursory information about 88 Islamic State members and affiliates—including about second-in-command at the time, Abu Qaswara—but diligently painted a picture of what they looked like, where they liked to hang out, and who they socialized with. Daniel Milton, director of research at the U.S. Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center and who studied Qurayshi’s declassified interrogation reports, said he sang like a bird and gave up his colleagues to save himself.

The United States’ revelations on how Qurayshi sacrificed his colleagues were meant to tarnish his reputation among fellow jihadis. Experts believe he was desperate to revive the Islamic State and regain his lost credibility. “The best antidote for lack of credibility is to do things that make you credible,” Milton said. “Can you think of a better way to try to de-emphasize doubts about your loyalty to your colleagues than by approving or encouraging an operation designed to break them out of prison? Regardless of who al-Mawla was in 2008, he is leading the group with vigor and violence today,” Milton told Foreign Policy one day before the Islamic State leader was killed.

Under Qurayshi’s leadership, Islamic State attacks steadily grew with each passing year. Last year, there were more than 300 attacks just in Syria, and in January, the group launched the most sophisticated and elaborate attack since its fall in Baghouz, Syria. Ghwayran prison in al-Hasakah, northern Syria, is packed with around 5,000 Islamic State members and came under a lethal and pre-planned attack by hundreds of Islamic State fighters. The prison break left 500 people dead and went on for a week. An unknown number of Islamic State terrorists fled and will likely return to the mothership.

Experts said Qurayshi intended for the latest attack to not just free the prisoners so they join his forces but also demonstrate to other willing recruits that the Islamic State looks after its men—a much more effective play to multiply his troops. But the biggest takeaway for Qurayshi and the Islamic State was the media coverage that advertised the group’s strength and showed it was down but not out. “Publicity is the lifeblood of many organizations, leading to increased recruitment and funding,” Milton said. “This attack has likely done more to boost [the Islamic State’s] image locally and around the world in the eyes of its supporters and potential recruits than has any other operation they have done in the past several years.”

Whether the Islamic State gains more recruits remains to be seen, but the recent spate of attacks has intensified fears of its return in the hearts of people who knew all along that the group was merely biding its time and was hiding in Idlib, a region held by former al Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, and in Badiya, a vast desert comprising parts of Syria and Iraq.

“We have known that ISIS is still present in the desert, of course. Nobody can control the desert,” said Samer Ali, an Arab activist in northeastern Syria. “The activities of ISIS sleeper cells have recently increased.”

Ali and his neighbors are terrified the Islamic State might next attack the prison in their city, al-Shaddadi. The prison holds around 2,500 Islamic State members—many senior fighters and leaders—who have the potential to rejuvenate the terrorist group. Fear has gripped Ali’s community since the Islamic State attacked the prison in al-Hasakah—just about an hour from their city.

“The prison break in Hasakah horrified people here,” Ali told Foreign Policy on WhatsApp. “Everyone is now afraid of an ISIS return, and what happened there proved that the organization still has the capabilities” to target prisons and extract its men.

Siamand Ali, spokesperson for the People’s Defense Units (YPG), which is part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), told Foreign Policy that the Islamic State’s changed tactics and Turkey’s constant threat of war against the group, has limited the YPG’s ability to eliminate the jihadists. “[The Islamic State] started activities through sleeper cells and small groups,” he said. “But the leaders of ISIS have found shelter in the Turkish-occupied cities from where they plan attacks and send their fighters to our territories.”

Although there is no evidence of where the recent Islamic State attacks, including the latest against Ghwayran prison, were planned, experts contend such a massive attack would have been directed by Islamic State leadership. Qurayshi was found in Idlib, which is also home to Turkish-backed rebels. But there is substance in the YPG’s complaint that the presence of Turkey’s continued attacks on SDF-held territory has distracted U.S. allies and split their forces. “ISIS still can take control of the cities in the area, bearing in mind that our forces, despite their continuous efforts, cannot face that alone while being busy with repelling the relentless attacks by the Turkish-backed forces,” the YPG spokesperson said.

The SDF can blame Turkey and the withdrawal of U.S. troops. But the truth is that several warnings had repeatedly been made about how the terror group was planning to attack prisons. Moreover, the Islamic State deployed its standard operating procedure during the prison break by first exploding a car bomb and then unleashing suicide bombers and fighters to open fire at prison security. In 2013, the group exploded 12 car bombs outside the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and also attacked Taji prison to the north of Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, to free the leaders who eventually took over large swathes of Syria and Iraq in 2014.

It’s not clear whether Qurayshi was a particularly bright or creative general leader on the battlefield. But the point is he didn’t need to be. His determination to cause mayhem was enough to cause problems in the region. In that way, it would be a mistake to assume his death marks any sort of end to the organization he led—or to the need for the United States and other countries to combat it.

Anchal Vohra is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut. Twitter: @anchalvohra

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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