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ConflictsMiddle East

What does the future hold for 'IS'?

February 9, 2022

The head of the "Islamic State" (IS) terrorist group was recently killed in a US military operation after he took shelter in northwestern Syria. Who could succeed him? And how strong is IS today?

 A partly destroyed house in Syria
The IS leader was living in this houseImage: Aaref Watad/AFP

Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi  never left the house. He was the only high-ranking leader of the terrorist organization "Islamic State" (IS) who never released video or voice messages. He feared being detected in his nondescript house in Atmeh in the province of Idlib in northwestern Syria, not far from the border with Turkey.

The region is dominated by the rival Islamist militia Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an offshoot of al-Qaida, so the neighbors would surely never have guessed who the man next door actually was. He seems to have been planning an IS comeback.

But the US secret services found him first. Even though his late predecessor Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had also gone into hiding in the region, few had expected this of al-Qurayshi too — until a US military strike in early February, during which he reportedly blew himself up, killing several members of his family as well. What consequences could his death have. How significant is IS today?

Women fleeing the IS in Syria in 2019
For years, IS has waged a campaign of terrorImage: AFP/D. Souleiman

What does the death of a terrorist leader mean? 

Al-Qaida chief Osama Bin Laden, the al-Qaida head in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and previous IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were all hunted down and killed by the US. But they were always replaced by other leaders and their respective terrorist groups always resurfaced, sometimes in a partly different configuration.

Experts agree that the killing of yet another leader will do little to eradicate the ideology of the IS. Nonetheless, the death of al-Qurayshi is a "hard blow for the organization," said Guido Steinberg, a Middle East expert from the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

Not much is known about al-Qurayshi, an Iraqi. He is thought to have earned a master's degree in Islamic Studies and to have served in the Iraqi army under the late dictator Saddam Hussein.

He had been part of IS since at least 2007 and had been nominated by Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi as his successor in 2019. His death comes at a time when IS has already lost its "caliphate" encompassing territory in Iraq and Syria, along with a large number of fighters.

According to Steinberg, al-Qurayshi not only took care of operational matters but was also a religious authority for IS supporters. In the past, IS has made it clear that this is an important criterion. Now, the organization faces a potential leadership vacuum.

Who could succeed al-Qurayshi?

"Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi will be difficult to replace," predicts Steinberg. It will not be so easy at this time for IS to find somebody who has not only religious authority but is seen as strong in military matters as well, he said.

Many potential leaders have died during the anti-terror campaign, and the number of candidates is small. Steinberg said that al-Qurayshi's successor would probably be from Iraq because "in the past three years IS has become a strong Iraqi organization again."

How strong is IS?

IS remains active in northern and northwestern Iraq, as well as in eastern Syria. More recently, it has been operating from the northeast of Syria, the Kurdish autonomous zone. Some experts estimate current numbers of IS fighters to be between 4,000 and 6,000, whereas others believe that there could be up to 10,000 in Syria and Iraq.

There are also thousands of imprisoned fighters, as well as tens of thousands of their family members, held in camps and prisons run by the Kurdish autonomous administration in Syria. They represent a potential pool of future members.

Of the regional branches set up in 2014, those in Afghanistan, Libya and Yemen are thought to be strongest. But today "IS is much weaker than during its heyday from 2014 to 2016," said Steinberg. At that time, it boasted an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 fighters and controlled an area with a population of 6 to 9 million.

Jailed suspected IS fighters wearing orange uniforms in a jail in northeastern Syria
There are thousands of suspected IS fighters in jail in northeastern SyriaImage: FADEL SENNA/AFP

Since losing its "caliphate," IS has struggled to control its international network. This is one of the reasons why it appears to be operating in a more decentralized manner today. Nonetheless, according to Steinberg, "the fact that the last leader, who is now dead, was so close to the Turkish border shows that it is important to the IS to maintain international contacts".

He said that it would become increasingly difficult for the IS to do this in the coming months and years, however. "The extent to which it succeeds at all will depend on whether it can garner strength in Iraq and Syria, and on whether it can even perhaps emerge from the underground and begin to rule some territory again." This does not look likely at the moment, he added.

Steinberg said the death of the IS leader showed once again that the US had good and precise intelligence regarding hideouts. But he also pointed out that IS continued to profit from the political instability in both Iraq and Syria. "That's why it still can't be written off," he said.

Moreover, money is not an issue since the organization is reported to have accumulated hundreds of millions. Even if IS is weaker, "we have to assume that it will remain an important factor for years to come, at least in Iraq and Syria — and also in Afghanistan."

This article was translated from German.

Edited by: Timothy Jones