Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi was the fourth leader of the Islamic State organisation, and the fourth to be killed in a US raid or airstrike. In 2006, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was tracked and assassinated with F-16s. In 2010, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was killed in a special forces raid in Tikrit. The first caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed in a special forces operation in 2019.
US intelligence found al-Qurashi by tracking a courier working for ISIS in Syria’s Idlib province. On the night of 2 February, special forces flew in from Iraq in helicopters, surrounded the house that al-Qurashi had rented (apparently posing as a taxi driver), and ordered the residents out with loudspeakers. Al-Qurashi and twelve others, mostly women and children, were killed. The US claims that al-Qurashi, like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, detonated the bomb that did the damage. The only people left alive who know exactly what happened are the special forces operatives involved, and they are unlikely to tell.
Al-Qurashi was born Muhammad Said Abdul Rahman al-Mawla (he also went by the name Abdullah Qardash, among others) in a majority Turkmen village near Mosul. He joined the jihadist movement after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and, like his predecessor, spent time in American detention in Camp Bucca. He rose through the caliphal hierarchy to become overseer of the Islamic State’s judges. His birthplace led to doubts about his ethnicity – Arab or Turkmen? – and hence his suitability to succeed al-Baghdadi as caliph. The caliphate no longer existed as a territorial state, but the question mattered to ISIS supporters.
Iraqi intelligence thought al-Qurashi was in hiding somewhere east of the Euphrates, perhaps in the Samawah desert. That he was in fact in Idlib, less than two miles from the Turkish border, is no great surprise. Atmeh, the village where he was living, is near Barisha, where al-Baghdadi was killed. The area is under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a former al-Qaida affiliate on poor terms with ISIS. But the mass displacements of the Syrian civil war make it easy to disappear. Villagers who in the past might have been suspicious of outsiders are used to new arrivals coming and going.
Some American news outlets reported that the goal of the raid had been to capture al-Qurashi. But President Biden said the choice was between a special forces night raid and an airstrike. They reason they opted for the raid was to ‘minimise civilian casualties’ (without success, it would seem), not because it was a capture attempt. The results of these JSOC operations tend to be the same. And the pattern of US assassinations of jihadists in general and ISIS leaders in particular is clear.
The chief advantage of a special forces raid is that it’s easier to confirm the identity of the victims. The US regularly conducts drone assassinations in northern Syria, often with disregard for civilian casualties and without firm evidence of who it is shooting at. It claims to have killed an implausible number of ‘senior al-Qaida leaders’ in such strikes. When the US needs to be sure of its victims, it prefers to get up close.
Al-Qurashi claimed the title of caliph but the organisation he headed could no longer be called a state. The former territory of the caliphate is now divided up among the Syrian Kurds, the Turkish army and its proxies, Syrian government forces, and Iraqi Shia paramilitaries. ISIS has reverted to the organisational structure it had before its spectacular conquests in 2014. It is more a loose network run by committees than a coherent bureaucracy. Its main activities are guerrilla operations, much like those of its affiliate in the Sinai peninsula. It doesn’t require much central direction.
The marginalised, predominantly rural Sunnis in Syria and Iraq who formed the base of support for the Islamic State have seen no real change in their material conditions. Many of the cities ISIS once held were all but destroyed by Western air power, and have been only partly rebuilt. Many former footsoldiers remain in scattered prison camps. In January, hundreds escaped when the group launched an attack on a prison in Hasakah.
The US policy of assassinating ISIS leaders did not prevent its rise, or cause its fall. There are plenty more veterans of the Iraq insurgency, plenty of former Camp Bucca detainees.