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Islamic State’s ‘ghost’ of a leader was plotting comeback when U.S. commandos cornered him

A building destroyed in the aftermath of a counterterrorism mission conducted by the U.S. Special Operations Forces is seen in Atma, Syria, on February 3, 2022. (Mohamed Aldaher/Via Reuters)
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Captured Islamic State fighters described him as a “ghost,” a mysterious and nearly invisible leader with little practical sway over his weakened terrorist organization. Rivals questioned his credentials and reviled him as a turncoat who ratted out his comrades during a stint in a U.S. military prison.

But the Islamic State chief dubbed Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi also was known as a survivor, one who had weathered multiple setbacks and defeats. In recent months he had been plotting a comeback, U.S. officials and terrorism experts say, including a second act for the violent Islamist self-declared caliphate that had terrorized the region and, along with its affiliates, other parts of the world until its destruction three years ago.

Those plans abruptly ended in the predawn hours Thursday, when a U.S. Special Operations team assaulted his safe house in northwestern Syria. As commandos attacked the three-story villa, Qurayshi detonated a bomb that killed him and his family, including several children, U.S. officials said.

“This horrible terrorist leader is no more,” President Biden said in a televised statement announcing the successful raid.

U.S. officials say Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi killed himself and his family in an explosion (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: AP/The Washington Post)

White House announces death of ISIS leader after a daring raid into Syria

Qurayshi was the second person to lead the Islamic State in its current incarnation, and his death came in a manner nearly identical to that of his predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who also detonated a bomb after being surrounded by U.S. commandos in a similar raid in 2019, just a few miles away. Like Baghdadi, Qurayshi held the title of “caliph,” or leader, of the Islamic State, even though the physical caliphate had been destroyed months before he took the helm.

His tenure as terrorist chief was spent entirely in hiding, as the Islamic State’s core area in Iraq and Syria was reduced to a scattering of underground cells that carried out occasional attacks against security forces and then retreated. But more recently, the group appeared to be on the rebound. Its network of regional affiliates in Africa has been steadily gaining strength, while its fighters in Iraq and Syria had begun staging increasingly elaborate and ambitious attacks, including last month’s massive assault on the Hasakah prison in northeastern Syria where thousands of former militants were detained.

Prison break: ISIS fighters launched a brazen attack to free their comrades

Whether Qurayshi personally directed the Hasakah assault is unknown, but his death is at minimum a serious psychological setback at a moment when the terrorist group was attempting to regain its footing, counterterrorism officials and independent experts say.

“It is certainly a blow to the morale boost that followed the Hasakah prison break,” said Charles Lister, director of the Syria and Countering Terrorism and Extremism programs at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank. The big question, given the terrorist group’s decentralized state, is whether “the killing of the leader is an overall strategic achievement for the U.S., rather than just a tactical blow.”

Although he was in the position for less than three years, Qurayshi had been preparing for the role of Islamic State leader for much of his adult life. Born in Iraq in 1976 as Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abd-al-Rahman al-Mawla, he joined the terrorist group around 2004, when it called itself al-Qaeda in Iraq and waged guerrilla warfare against U.S. forces occupying the country.

Before the U.S.-led invasion, he had lived in relative obscurity, the son of parents from a village near the northern Iraqi town of Tal Afar. His family background conferred at least one significant advantage: claimed membership in a tribe that was said to have descended from Islam’s founder, Muhammad — a key qualification for a future “caliph” of the Islamic State.

Iraqi records show that Qurayshi — then known as al-Mawla — attended the University of Mosul, majoring in Koranic studies. After a brief stint in the Iraqi army, he returned to the university to obtain a master’s degree in Islamic studies, gaining scholarly credentials that also served him as he later sought to climb to senior leadership positions within the Islamic State.

He suffered a severe blow to his reputation after he was captured in 2008 and held at the U.S. military prison known as Camp Bucca. According to military records and photos released years later, the future Islamic State leader was a scowling, fleshy-faced man known within the prison as a willing — even eager — informant. In dozens of interrogation memos, he revealed names, addresses and personal details of rivals within the terrorist group, including of the then-No. 2 leader, Abu Qaswarah. The Moroccan-born Swede was killed weeks later in a raid by U.S. troops.

“Detainee is providing a lot of information,” said one of the interrogation reports, which was published in the summer by the Combating Terrorism Center, a Pentagon-funded academic institution at the U.S. Military Academy. A terrorism expert who analyzed the documents described Qurayshi as “a songbird of unique talent and ability.”

ISIS leader was a prison snitch, U.S. records suggest

Although the precise details remain unclear, Qurayshi was released from prison sometime in 2009, after the Americans began to transfer control of detention facilities to the Iraqi government. He returned to the terrorist group and, five years later, when Baghdadi was leading an Islamic State army to sweeping victories across Syria and northern Iraq, he held an important position as a religious adviser, organizing prayer services and delivering sermons and religious instruction.

Qurayshi was an aide to Baghdadi when the group seized control of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, in 2014, and he was part of the senior leadership as the Islamic State suffered a succession of defeats at the hands of a U.S.-led military coalition, starting in the fall of 2014 and continuing through early 2019, with the crushing of the last stronghold near the town of Baghuz, Syria.

Reports about Qurayshi’s past cooperation with his U.S. captors continued to haunt him, even as he climbed the ranks. When Baghdadi’s death thrust Qurayshi into contention as a possible new leader, prominent commentators on pro-Islamic State social media sites criticized the choice, arguing that his past behavior was disqualifying.

However, for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, Qurayshi appeared to check all the right boxes as someone who could unify a defeated organization and provide a symbolic, if not hands-on, leadership.

“ISIS sought to portray Abu Ibrahim as a descendant of the prophet Muhammad,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA counterterrorism official and the author of “Jordan and America,” a book detailing the cooperation against terrorist groups that evolved between Washington and one of its closest Middle East allies. “This would enhance the group’s legitimacy in the eyes of its followers. It would also strengthen their claim to be the true caliphate and descendants of the early Islamic states.”

Yet, Qurayshi was — as terrorism experts often observed — a “caliph without a caliphate.” While the Islamic State commands a cadre of at least 10,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria, according to U.S. military estimates, it struggled to regain its footing after the fall of Baghuz. Meanwhile, Qurayshi, never a prominent leader, effectively disappeared from public view after his promotion. U.S. officials said they believe Qurayshi continued to direct operations and dispense advice to the Islamic State’s regional affiliates. But he did so from hiding, never showing himself publicly or even releasing videotaped messages to rally morale, as Baghdadi had occasionally done.

One Middle Eastern intelligence official who closely tracks the Islamic State said Qurayshi simply lacked the charisma of Baghdadi. But he also seemed to prefer a lower profile, for operational and security reasons.

“[He] seems to have given the emirs of the different branches more responsibility and power to act without the need to constantly get the approval from him, the caliph,” said the intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence assessments. “This is why ISIS was able to spread more widely in some areas, even though the ‘caliphate’ no longer exists.”

There was no immediate confirmation or comment on Qurayshi’s death from the Islamic State, and no public suggestions on his possible replacement. Terrorism experts said it is likely to be months before a new caliph is announced. Early speculation about Baghdadi’s possible successor in 2019 turned out to be inaccurate.

Meanwhile, in social media chatrooms frequented by Islamic State sympathizers, many reacted to the news with a shrug. Whatever Qurayshi’s contributions as leader, his loss is ultimately of minor significance, some said.

“He didn’t appear on the media in the same manner as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but that also had to do with the current situation on the ground in Syria and Iraq,” said one self-professed Islamic State sympathizer, responding to a question over an encrypted text-messaging platform. “But even if the media is not reporting about it as much, we are strong in the Sahel. We are still capable of conducting operations in Syria and Iraq. And soon more operations will follow.”

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