Iraq News

Faced with few choices for top post, ISIS appoints unknown leader

By Waleed Abu al-Khair and AFP

A group of ISIS members in Iraq swear allegiance to their new leader in a picture posted to Telegram on March 11. [File]

A group of ISIS members in Iraq swear allegiance to their new leader in a picture posted to Telegram on March 11. [File]

The "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) on Thursday (March 10) named its third leader in less than eight years, just over a month after his predecessor blew himself up, along with his family members, during a US raid in Syria.

Little is known about the new leader, Abu Hasan al-Hashemi al-Qurashi, who takes the reins of a group that is a shadow of its former self in terms of members and power, after his predecessor's undignified demise.

High leadership turnover has been a hallmark of ISIS since its inception, driven by successful operations to crush the violent extremist organisation.

Abu Ibrahim al-Qurashi's predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, also killed himself during a US raid in October 2019, blowing himself up in a tunnel, along with two children who were with him.

The United States has vowed to keep working with its allies to "keep pressure on ISIS", with President Joe Biden saying the previous raid "sends a strong message to terrorists around the world: we will come after you, and find you".

An audio message posted on ISIS social media accounts on Thursday confirmed the death of the previous ISIS chief and the group's former spokesman, Abu Hamza al-Qurashi.

The message was delivered by the new spokesman, Abu-Omar al-Muhajir.

Little-known leader

Abu Hasan al-Qurashi takes the helm at a time when ISIS has been weakened by US-backed operations in Iraq and Syria aiming to thwart a resurgence.

According to the ISIS audio statement, he was endorsed by Abu Ibrahim before his death and the appointment was confirmed by the group's senior leaders.

The recording did not offer further details.

Like his predecessor, the new ISIS leader is an unknown figure, experts say.

"We simply don't know" anything about his identity, said Tore Hamming, a researcher at the war studies department of King's College London.

ISIS went "with a relative unknown because the bench has been thinned out considerably", Soufan Group research director Colin Clarke said.

The group's choice of successor likely had been made before Abu Ibrahim's death to avert internal divisions, Jihad Analytics consultancy director Damien Ferre said.

"The decision was made early to avoid a strong destabilisation of the group," he said, explaining that similar logic applied to the 2019 succession.

Keeping ISIS in check

Terror group specialist Wael Abdul Muttalib told Al-Mashareq the appointment of a new leader shows "ISIS is determined to survive for as long as possible, if only in the media", as part of its ideological war to boost the morale of its followers.

ISIS took advantage of the international community's preoccupation with Russia's assault on Ukraine to make its announcement, Syrian journalist Mohammed al-Abdullah told Al-Mashareq.

He warned that the group will seek to reactivate its sleeper cells in some areas, which underscores the need for the international coalition to continue its support of its allies on the ground, led by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

"The allies have proven in the past period their strength and effectiveness in fighting the group," al-Abdullah said.

"At the present time, the group's capabilities are in tatters and its operations are limited to lone wolf and limited-scale attacks, and can be eliminated once and for all before their scope expands again," he said.

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