After assassination of leader, ‘ISIS likely planning revenge operations’

Senior terrorism researcher Michael Barak warns that the West is not doing enough to deradicalize “the next generation of jihad” growing up in Syrian camps. He also notes that the location of Abu Ibrahim Qurayshi raises more questions than answers.

Logos written by ISIS fighters on the walls in Aleppo, Syria, in 2017. Credit: Mohammad Bash/Shutterstock.
Logos written by ISIS fighters on the walls in Aleppo, Syria, in 2017. Credit: Mohammad Bash/Shutterstock.

The Feb. 3 assassination of ISIS chief Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi in northwest Syria represents an unmistakably severe blow for the terrorist organization, but it is also likely to trigger a campaign of “revenge” operations, a terrorism expert has cautioned.

American media reports said in recent days that the green light to take out Qurayshi was given by the White House months ago after establishing his location on the top floor of a home in northwest Syria.

Michael Barak, a senior researcher at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, where he serves as the head of the Global Jihad and Palestinian Terrorism Desks, told JNS that just as ISIS embarked on a series of symbolic attacks following the 2019 assassination of Qurayshi’s predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the same response could occur now.

Qurayshi’s photographs are old ones, Barak noticed, from his time in an Iraqi prison, while his spokesperson—a figure known as Abu Hamza—also only made one appearance in 2021.

A Turkman from Iraq, Qurayshi studied at Mosul University in northern Iraq before becoming a senior ISIS operative. “He was the chief engineer of the slaughter of the Yazidis [in Iraq].” He also supervised a number of ISIS attacks in Europe, according to Barak.

“He was called Qurayshi in order to bolster his claim of being a descendent of Islam’s Prophet, Muhammad, who hailed from a tribe by the same name in Arabia,” said Barak.

The assassination does somewhat strengthen the reputation of Washington following the crisis-filled withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer, noted Barak, and it displays a willingness to “act against the enemy.” But he stressed that the enemy in question is a sub-state adversary and that this does not automatically translate into deterrence against state adversaries such as Russia.

Barak said Qurayshi’s location in northwest Syria, close to the Turkish border, raises questions. “If he was in Idlib, this is an area that is under control of a former Al-Qaeda branch called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, headed by Abu Mohammad al-Julani,” he said.

Al-Julani was once tied to former ISIS leader Al-Baghdadi, who sent him to establish an ISIS branch in Syria. They later fell out, and al-Julani then swore allegiance to Al-Qaeda, before leaving it, too, and becoming an independent force more aligned with Syrian national rebel forces than global jihadism.

“Since that time, al-Julani became independent,” said Barak, describing who has control of the area where Qurayshi was hiding. “Al-Julani has had ties to Turkey to get its assistance. Turkish posts defend Idlib against Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’ite militias, Iranian forces and the Russian military,” he added.

Acting under Turkish and Russian pressure, Al-Julani has arrested and expelled foreign jihadist fighters, including from Chechnya.

“If the leader of ISIS hid in this area while other foreign jihadists were being arrested, what does this mean?” asked Barak. “Why was he there?”

Parallel campaign: ‘Destroying the Walls’

Before the assassination, ISIS forces loyal to Qurayshi had spent about 10 days fighting to break out thousands of ISIS members from a prison in Al-Hasakah in northeast Syria and against the Kurdish SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) organization that controlled the prison.

According to an SDF investigation, the attack on the prison was launched “after long preparations by ISIS,” according to a report by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, and included suicide bombers and a car bomb.

During the breakout attempt, “a truck loaded with weapons and ammunition arrived at the prison gate so that escaping prisoners could equip themselves with weapons and ammunition while fleeing,” said the report. The SDF ended up crushing the attempt.

Such prison breakouts are part of an organized campaign orchestrated by Qurayshi, said Barak, and was a continuation of policies set by the late al-Baghdadi.

“After al-Baghdadi lost Mosul in Iraq and Baghouz—the strongholds of the caliphate—he ordered his followers to launch a war of attrition, a guerilla campaign, to hit the infrastructure of the enemy, its power supplies and food stores,” said Barak. “This also included clashes with Iran-backed militias and attacking their commanders as they slept in their home.”

A parallel campaign, dubbed “Destroying the Walls,” was also launched by ISIS, targeting prisons and aiming to free ISIS members.

“They see the need to free prisoners as a top priority, and allege that prisoners are tortured and that women are sexually harassed,” said Barak.

The campaign can even be traced back to 2012-13 to Iraq before al-Baghdadi declared an Islamic caliphate.

‘Proliferation of ISIS fighters’

According to Barak’s assessments, ISIS’s activities are gradually expanding in the Middle East—in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan—as well as in Africa, primarily in the Sahel region.

“There is a proliferation of ISIS fighters in countries that did not see them before, like Burkina Faso, Congo, Mozambique and the Central African Republic,” said Barak.

ISIS and Al-Qaeda both use these vast areas to fund their activities through the smuggling of weapons, narcotics and people, he added. “Local governments are treading water, suffer from corruption and cannot control this,” said Barak. “In Burkina Faso, ISIS managed to take over a number of goldmines, as well as force the local population to cooperate and mine gold for it.”

Using natural mines to fund its activities and recruit new members, ISIS is on the rise in parts of Africa. Its immediate goal, Barak said, is to topple “the near enemy,” defined as African governments and local Western targets, like French forces in Mali.

In Afghanistan, ISIS accuses the Taliban of forgetting its jihadist ideology and seeking to find favor in Western and Chinese eyes. The Taliban’s decision to move a concentration of Uygur fighters away from an area bordering China—west into Afghanistan—is seen as proof of this favor seeking, according to ISIS.

“In its rhetoric, ISIS says the Taliban sold its soul, that it is pursuing fake jihad. That it is not real,” explained Barak. “The fact that the Taliban sits in Doha hotels with United States negotiators is seen as more proof of that,” according to ISIS’s rhetoric.

ISIS published an info-graph of its activity, showing an increase in the year 2021 when it claimed 2,748 terror attacks worldwide. Most of them (1,027) took place in Iraq, followed by Nigeria (415) and Afghanistan (327), with Syria coming in a close fourth (368). Egypt’s Sinai was the site of 101 ISIS attacks.

“ISIS remains active in Sinai; it is not fully quelled. It is still conducting ambushes on Egyptian security forces,” said Barak. “Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is trying to improve ties with local Sinai tribes and to send the image of Sini Bedouin tribes that work with Egypt to capture ISIS operatives. He is trying to show that the tribal population is in favor of Egypt. This is true up to an extent, though ISIS continues its attacks on Egyptian personnel,” he stated.

Meanwhile, disturbingly in Syria, ISIS has been able to infiltrate refugee camps and indoctrinate children with radical jihadist ideology, said Barak. “There are sleeper cells in the Al-Hol refugee in eastern Syria, and they brainwash the children. We have seen video of children using radical vocabularies there. The West is not working successfully to prevent, deradicalize or reduce this brainwashing. That is a time bomb. The next generation of jihad is being raised.”

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