Opinion

The mystery successor of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

Islamic State has announced the name of its new leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Qarashi, but nobody knows who he is.

The Islamic State flag. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The Islamic State flag. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Yoni Ben Menachem
Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as director general and chief editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

In an official announcement on Oct. 31, 2019, Islamic State announced the name of its new leader: Abu Ibrahim al-Qarashi. Al-Qarashi is a complete unknown, and ISIS has refrained from publishing his picture or sharing any information about him.

It was widely believed throughout the U.S. intelligence sector and in Arab states’ security establishment that former ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s successor would be Abdullah Qardash, whom al-Baghdadi himself declared as his potential successor last August in a statement circulated to the media.

Qardash was a close friend of al-Baghdadi. The two met 16 years ago in a U.S. prison in Bucca, Iraq. Over the years, Qardash went from being an officer in the Iraqi army of Saddam Hussein to becoming al-Baghdadi’s right-hand man, rising through the ranks of ISIS to become Baghdadi’s “defense minister.”

To intelligence officials in the West, al-Qarashi is a completely unknown figure. It is believed there is a possibility it is a nom de guerre, or “underground alias,” attached to Qardash for security reasons. And symbolic ones: Qardash is a Turkman, while al-Qarashi refers to the Arabian Quraysh tribe of the Prophet Muhammad, in an apparent effort to show that ISIS is continuing the idea of an Islamic caliphate.

Further support for the theory that al-Qarashi is Qardash is that Qardash has extensive military experience fighting against the United States alongside al-Baghdadi, experience the ISIS leadership values highly and would be unlikely to abandon.

On the other hand, some U.S. sources believe Abu Ibrahim al-Qarashi was one of the leaders of Al Qaeda in Iraq, who fought against the Americans there and was nicknamed “Al Haj Abu Abdallah,” and whose additional name is Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal Rahman al-Mawla.

According to these sources, al-Qarashi was involved in crimes against the Yazidis in Iraq in 2014.

President Donald Trump tweeted last weekend that the identity of the Islamic State’s new leader is well known to the United States, but did not provide details.

This would not be the first time ISIS has hidden the name of a senior member. Protecting the new leader’s real name may indicate that ISIS is about to go underground and move towards guerrilla war in Iraq and Syria, especially likely given the fact that ISIS lost a considerable amount of its territory and a great portion of its army, which has since disintegrated.

It is also possible that hiding the name of the new leader is intended to prevent the fragmentation of ISIS, that the al-Qarashi alias is meant to attract new volunteers.

ISIS has also announced, through its media arm, known as Al Furqan, the appointment of a new spokesman, Abu Hamza al-Qarashi, who replaces Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, killed in a U.S. raid in Syria shortly after the death of al-Baghdadi.

According to intelligence sources in the West, ISIS will endeavor, in the near future, to take revenge attacks for the death of al-Baghdadi and to showcase operations that will prove that the group’s power has not diminished. With this in mind, ISIS is also expected to encourage their “dormant squads” and “lone wolves” to go out and commit terror attacks.

An ISIS branch in Sinai announced on Nov. 2, 2019, that it is renewing its loyalty to ISIS and its new leader. They were joined by an ISIS branch in Somalia, and it is expected that other branches of ISIS will follow suit to show that ISIS is united and did not split following al-Baghdadi’s death.

In recent months, ISIS has lost senior and mid-level commanders, and the new leader will have to rebuild its leadership ranks.

It is impossible to rule out the possibility that the new leader will join forces with Al Qaeda. After all, despite their disputes and rivalries, both groups share a common ideology.

Al-Baghdadi chose to hide in an area controlled by Al Qaeda.

U.S. intelligence officials told the New York Times that al-Baghdadi paid sums of money to the “Hurras al-Din“ (Guardians of Religion Organization), which is affiliated with Al Qaeda, to provide protection for ISIS members and their families who fled Deir ez-Zor and Mosul.

The main difference between ISIS and Al Qaeda was that ISIS initiated the establishment of the caliphate through the occupation of huge territories in Iraq and Syria and founded the “Islamic State,” whose capital was Raqqa. Al Qaeda, meanwhile, concentrated on establishing its affiliates in various parts of the world.

As a result of ISIS’s success, terrorist branches in various parts of the world such as Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and other South Asian countries, such as the Philippines and Myanmar, abandoned Al Qaeda and swore allegiance to ISIS instead.

The death of Al-Baghdadi is a severe blow to the morale of ISIS, but the group has already lost leaders such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, so the death of the latest leader may be a blow from which the organization can recover.

The new leader will find it very difficult to retake control of the vast territories the “Islamic State” lost in Syria and Iraq, and will have to devise a new strategy.

The dream of the Islamic caliphate ended even before al-Baghdadi’s death.

ISIS’s new leader is now expected to become the number one target of U.S. intelligence.

Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as director general and chief editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

This article first appeared on the website of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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