ISIS After Baghdadi

Suspected members of ISIS in a prison run by Kurdish-led forces in Syria, October 2019
Ivor Prickett/The New York Times/Redux
Suspected members of ISIS in a prison run by Kurdish-led forces in Syria, October 2019

On October 26 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, died when he detonated a suicide vest after being cornered by US Delta Force soldiers in a tunnel in Idlib province, along the border with Turkey in northwestern Syria. Idlib is the last remaining rebel-held province, and Baghdadi was apparently hiding out among many other displaced Syrians, including jihadists, who were trying to survive the onslaught from Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s forces and Russian air power. The CIA and US Special Forces had located him with the help of an ISIS informant cultivated by Kurdish intelligence officers in the US-aligned Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). President Trump not only declared his death an American victory and a sign of ISIS’s demise but also claimed, without evidence, that Baghdadi had “died like a dog” and “like a coward,” and that he was “whimpering, screaming, and crying.”

Baghdadi was undeniably inspirational, audacious, and resourceful. Over the course of six years, beginning in 2013 when he announced its formation, ISIS under his leadership had energized transnational Sunni jihadism, supplanting al-Qaeda as its dominant force, attracting 40,000 foreign fighters from 110 countries, and taking control of large swaths of Syria and Iraq. He ruled with extreme brutality, mercilessly applying sharia law, frequently beheading Western captives and alleged traitors and apostates, and unabashedly using filmed ISIS violence and subjugation as a propaganda and recruiting tool. “Rape and sex played an important role in Islamic State selling points,” notes Daniel Byman in his authoritative and lively book Road Warriors: Foreign Fighters in the Armies of Jihad.

Between August 2014 and March 2019, however, a US-led coalition steadily rolled back the group’s territorial gains. Waged mainly by US warplanes in support of local ground forces—crucially Iraqi security forces and the SDF—Operation Inherent Resolve, as the coalition effort was called, also involved air strikes by the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Canada, Australia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Jordan.

After Baghdadi’s death, ISIS’s governing council swiftly released an audio recording announcing that Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi Qurayshi would take his place. It warned the US, “Do not be happy.” Qurayshi’s name—a nom de guerre—is meant to convey that he is directly descended from the Prophet Muhammad and is thus qualified to become ISIS’s “caliph.” His nationality remains unknown, though the consensus among terrorism analysts is that he is an Iraqi. The highest priority of ISIS’s senior leadership was to signal to the group’s members and followers that Qurayshi would provide spiritual, strategic, and operational guidance to ISIS’s affiliates and followers just as Baghdadi had done, and that he would seek to restore the caliphate that Baghdadi had proclaimed…

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