The Death of the Caliph and Islamic State’s Uncertain Future

February 7, 2022 | Hassan Hassan
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On February 3, American special forces surrounded the hideout of Islamic State’s current caliph, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurashi, who blew himself up with his family to avoid capture. Born in a Turkmen-majority village in northern Iraq, the late caliph was likely involved with a jihadist network known as the Qaradash, which was active in the area even before the fall of Saddam Hussein. Hassan Hassan explains the significance of Qurashi’s origins for the future of IS as a whole:

This [Qaradash] network comes largely from the areas around the Turkmen-dominant border town of Tal Afar in northern Iraq. Because of the demography of this longtime jihadist incubator, it has often been assumed that any member of Islamic State who hailed from Tal Afar was Turkmen rather than Arab. As such, because [IS] emphasizes the need for its leaders to be of a specific lineage linked to the prophet Mohammad, a Turkmen could never become head of the organization even though the Afaris have always had an outsized influence within and on Islamic State.

Indeed, it is almost certain that official IS documents invented an Arab lineage for Qurashi—a sign, to Hassan, of the group’s desperation to find a new leader after the U.S. eliminated the previous caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in 2019.

Because Islamic State has been weakened, its options for leaders are limited and it has had to rely on a small pool of candidates it can trust, notwithstanding the inconvenience of having to prove they are of Arab background. . . . It’s hard to imagine Islamic State will venture outside the “Qaradashians” for its new leader.

Add to these internal problems a broader set of factors favoring its enemies, including the growing strength of rival groups and governments, and the weakening of the international jihadist movement writ large, and it becomes clear how the organization’s chances of recovery are currently slim.

The death of its leader under these circumstances will further disorient the group and weaken its ability to focus on international terrorism. In other words, the prospects for the group do not seem as promising as suggested by much of the media commentary that followed Islamic State’s operation two weeks ago in northern Syria, in which it attacked a prison controlled by the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces and freed some jailed leaders.

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