By Cat Cronin, Researcher at Talking About Terrorism.
1. On 26 October 2019, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi killed himself by detonating a suicide vest as he was pursued in an attack by U.S. forces in Northern Syria. Al-Baghdadi, known as the “most wanted criminal in the world” had been the leader of ISIS since 2010.
2. A week after al-Baghdadi’s death, ISIS announced the organization’s new leader: Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi. The announcement was also intended to make the threatening statement to the West that ISIS will continue to persist in its goal of building an extremist state.
3. ISIS’s public announcement of a new leader demonstrates that the group has maintained a command structure. While some are wary of the possibility of the organization fracturing, choosing a successor shows an “assertion of continuity.” This is because ISIS leaders are approved by a shura (a governing council). Al-Qurayshi’s official approval implies that ISIS’s hierarchy and bureaucracy remain functional.
4. The true identity of al-Qurayshi is unknown, to both the public and to all but a few members of the terrorist organization. The U.S. State Department admits it knows “almost nothing” about al-Qurayshi, but claims that he “appears to be a nobody.”
5. Al-Qurayshi’s alias is particularly important. It signifies that his lineage can be traced back to the Quraysh tribe of the Prophet Muhammad, which ISIS believes gives the group legitimacy. Al-Qurayshi’s legitimacy is furthered by his title as a caliph, which conveys ISIS’s “attempt to continue its past operational strategy despite no longer holding territory in Syria or Iraq.”
6. The lack of knowledge of al-Qurayshi’s true identity has become a “major issue” for ISIS as they attempt to rally supporters. Many experts speculated that ISIS’s announcement would attract new followers, but there has been a lack of online communication on pro-ISIS networks.
7. Although there is no knowledge of who al-Qurayshi is, there is some speculation. ISIS officials often change their names when they change role or rank. One hypothesis is that the new leader is Iraqi “religious scholar,” al-Hajj Abdullah. Al-Hajj Abdallah has at least three aliases to date.
8. The current U.S. strategy is to learn identifying details about the new leader in order to apply “unrelenting pressure,” like it has done in the past.
9. President Trump has claimed that the U.S. knows the location of al-Qurayshi. There is no evidence yet that this statement is true.
10. It has yet to be determined what the precise implications of the new ISIS leader means for the U.S. and Europe. Some experts are concerned that Baghdadi’s death may be used as a recruitment tool or that it may trigger individuals or groups to retaliate against the U.S. For now, the biggest concern is the unpredictability that a new leader brings to the terrorist organization.