The head of Islamic State, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi, died as he lived most of his life: off the grid in the jihadist underworld.
Little is known about the ISIS leader, whose real name is Amir Muhammad Said Abdel-Rahman al-Mawla, or other members of the group’s senior command. But his death in a raid by U.S. commandos in Syria on Thursday was a significant blow to the terror group and a victory for U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
While he was nowhere near as prominent as his predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who died in a similar U.S. operation in 2019, “Mr. Qurayshi still commands a lot of respect within jihadi circles and is known to be highly intelligent and able to think strategically,” said Colin P. Clarke, a counterterrorism analyst at the Soufan Group, a security consulting firm based in New York.
Mr. Clarke said that Mr. al-Qurayshi had kept a low profile, which helped him elude an American-led manhunt but also may have hampered his ability to expand the Islamic State’s global network and brand. In March 2019, ISIS lost the last piece of territory from its so-called caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq.
“The trade-off has been, he’s a ghost, and not exactly active to inspire jihadist recruits,” Mr. Clarke said.
“The next ISIS leader could be someone relatively unknown, which will present the U.S. and its allies with a challenge in terms of intelligence collection and mapping his network. But it’s also a challenge for ISIS, particularly if the next leader is not someone with a reputation on par with previous jihadist leaders.”
Mr. al-Qurayshi, who was 45 and born in Iraq, was named the head of ISIS after Mr. al-Baghdadi died in October 2019 in similar circumstances: detonating a suicide vest as U.S. forces raided his hide-out in Syria’s Idlib Province. Once he took up that mantle, the United States put a bounty of up to $10 million on his head.
The U.S. government said he “helped drive and justify the abduction, slaughter, and trafficking of the Yazidi religious minority in northwest Iraq and also led some of the group’s global terrorist operations.”
He was captured by U.S. forces in Iraq in early 2008. The date of his release is not known. While in American custody, he appeared cooperative in interrogations and even provided information about other ISIS operatives, according to interrogation reports that were later made public.
A day after his capture, the U.S. military’s Central Command said that operations in Mosul, Iraq, had resulted in the capture of “a wanted individual believed to be the deputy Al Qaeda in Iraq leader for the network operating in the city.” It said the man had “previously served as a judge of an illegal court system involved in ordering and approving abductions and executions.”
Earlier, Mr. al-Qurayshi had served briefly in the Iraqi military before the fall of Saddam Hussein and completed a Master’s degree in Islamic Studies at the University of Mosul in January 2007. He told interrogators he joined the Islamic State in Iraq soon after that.