- Experts identify at least four potential successors to Quraishi
- One is a veteran who may have survived an airstrike
- None of the four have spent any time in US custody, sources say
- Group likely chases security leaks after leader’s death
- Under pressure, the Islamic State becomes a more decentralized group
BAGHDAD, Feb 9 (Reuters) – Islamic State’s next leader is likely to come from an inner circle of battle-hardened Iraqi jihadists who emerged in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion, two security officials said Iraqis and three independent analysts.
The group of potential successors to Abu Ibrahim al-Quraishi, who blew himself up in a US operation to capture him in Syria last week, includes a commander Washington and Baghdad said killed last year, they said. Iraqi officials said.
The death of Quraishi, 45, was another blow to IS two years after the violent Sunni Muslim group lost longtime leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a similar raid in 2019.
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Quraishi, an Iraqi, never publicly addressed his fighters or supporters, avoided electronic communications and oversaw a shift to fighting in small, decentralized units in response to intense pressure from Iraqi and US forces.
But those who follow Islamic State expect it to name a successor in the coming weeks, as the group that imposed brutal rule over large swathes of Iraq and Syria from 2014 to 2017 continues a stubborn and murderous insurgency in the Middle East.
Fadhil Abu Rgheef, an Iraqi expert who advises his security services, said there were at least four possible successors.
“These include … Abu Khadija, whose last known role was the Iraqi leader of the Islamic State, Abu Muslim, its leader for Anbar province, and another called Abu Salih, of whom there is very little information but who was close to Baghdadi and Quraishi,” he said.
“There is also Abu Yassir al-Issawi, who is believed to be still alive. He is valuable to the group because he has a long military experience.”
Issawi’s death in an airstrike in January 2021 was reported at the time by Iraqi forces as well as the US-led military coalition fighting Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
But an Iraqi security official confirmed there were strong suspicions that Issawi is still alive. “If he is not dead he would be a candidate, he has a proven track record in planning military attacks and has thousands of supporters,” the official said.
The official added that the Islamic State was likely carrying out a security sweep for possible leaks that led to Quraishi’s death before meeting to choose or announce a successor.
Hassan Hassan, editor of New Lines magazine which has published research on Quraishi, said the new leader would be a veteran Iraqi jihadist.
“If they choose one in the coming weeks, they will have to choose someone in the same circle (…) the group that was part of the Anbari group that operated under (the name) ISIS since the early days,” he said.
The Islamic State grew out of the militants who led an increasingly Sunni Islamist and sectarian insurgency against US troops and Iraqi forces after 2003.
The Islamic State of Iraq, also known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, was an offshoot of the global al-Qaeda organization of Osama bin Laden and the forerunner of the Islamic State, which took shape in the chaos of the Syrian civil war across the border.
Baghdadi and Quraishi, both members of al-Qaeda in Iraq from the start, were detained in the United States in the mid-2000s. In contrast, none of Quraishi’s four potential successors were captured by US forces. , a security official and an army colonel told Reuters.
Officials and analysts from various countries agree that the Islamic State is under more pressure than it has ever been and will never restore its so-called caliphate. But they are divided on the importance of Quraishi’s death for the group.
Some say the fight against ISIS will suck the United States and its allies for years to come as it morphs into a permanent insurgency with new leaders poised to take the reins.
“In Syria, Islamic State units operate as a decentralized network of individual groups to avoid targeting them. So we don’t believe Quraishi’s death will have a huge impact,” he said. one of the Iraqi security officials.
“It has also become more difficult to track them as they have long since stopped using cellphones to communicate.”
Since their territorial defeats in Iraq in 2017 and Syria in 2019, Islamic State leaders have found it increasingly easy to move between the two countries, helped by a gap in areas of control between the different armed forces. , according to some officials.
Security and military officials said the 600 km (372 mile) long border with Syria made it very difficult for Iraqi forces to prevent militants from infiltrating through underground tunnels.
NEW STEERING STYLE
Lahur Talabany, former head of counterterrorism for the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, said some IS leaders can travel on a route across the entire expanse of Iraq.
“When you see attacks increasing in a particular area, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone important had passed through that area,” he told Reuters. “The caliphate was defeated but ISIS was never eradicated. I don’t believe we managed to finish the job.”
Islamic State’s possession of land in Iraq and Syria set it apart from other like-minded groups like al-Qaeda and became a central part of its mission when it declared a caliphate in 2014, claiming sovereignty. sovereignty over all Muslim lands and peoples.
Fiercely anti-Western, the group also draws on Sunni-Shia tensions, claiming Shias are infidels who deserve to be killed.
Abu Rgheef said the new leader may have stronger military credentials than Quraishi, who Iraqi officials said was seen by supporters more as an Islamic legal mind than a military man.
“Attacks and operations will change in character depending on the style of the new leader. The new one might believe in large and intensive attacks, bombs or suicide attacks,” he said.
Despite Quraishi’s low profile and operational secrecy, his killing is likely to affect the group’s fighters, analysts say.
Hassan said Quraishi’s withdrawal would reduce morale. “ISIS is also locked into personalities and who is most trustworthy,” he said.
Aaron Zelin, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, said a figurehead was very important for ISIS.
“Whenever a leader of the group is killed, you take an oath to the (next) leader, the individual himself, not to the group.”
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Ahmed Rasheed reported from Baghdad, John Davison reported from Baghdad, Sulaimaniya and Geneva; additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Istanbul; Written by John Davison, edited by William Maclean
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