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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Mystery Successor of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

Filed under: ISIS, Radical Islam

The Mystery Successor of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (Al-Furqan media)
  • ISIS has announced its new leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Qarashi, but refrained from giving more details about him for security reasons.
  • Intelligence officials in the West believe the organization is now changing its strategy in order to recover from the blow it suffered following the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

ISIS acknowledged the death of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on October 27, 2019, and ISIS spokesman Abu Hassan al-Muhajir vowed to avenge his death and announced the election of a new leader in the ISIS “Shura Council.” Less than 24 hours later, after Baghdadi’s death, Muhajir was also killed in a U.S. airstrike.

In an official announcement on October 31, 2019, it was stated that the ISIS heir was Abu Ibrahim al-Qarashi, an unknown figure so far. ISIS has refrained from publishing his picture and posting details about him.

It was widely believed throughout the U.S. intelligence sector and in Arab states’ security establishment that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s successor would be Abdullah Qardash, whom al-Baghdadi himself declared as his potential successor last August in a statement circulated to the media.

Abdullah Qardash was a close friend of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The two met 16 years ago in a U.S. prison in Bucca, Iraq, and became close friends. Over the years, Abdullah Qardash, transformed from being an officer in the Iraqi army of Saddam Hussein to becoming al-Baghdadi’s right-hand man, advancing in ISIS until Qardash became Baghdadi’s “defense minister.”

Is Abu Ibrahim al-Qarashi Really Abdullah Qardash?

To intelligence officials in the West, al-Qarashi has been a completely unknown figure in the ISIS leadership. The officials believe that there is also the possibility that the name is a nom de guerre, or an “underground alias,” attached to Abdullah Qardash in order to maintain ambiguity and conceal the identity of the new ISIS leader for security reasons. Abdullah Qardash is a Turkman, while the new leader is nicknamed “al-Qarashi,” ostensibly from Prophet Muhammad’s Arabian Quraysh tribe, in an apparent effort to show that ISIS is continuing the idea of an Islamic caliphate.

Abdullah Qardash has extensive military experience fighting against the United States alongside Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and the ISIS leadership is unlikely to abandon Qardash’s “talents.”

Or Is Al-Qarashi Someone Else?

On the other hand, some U.S. sources believe that Abu Ibrahim al-Qarashi was one of the leaders of al-Qaeda in Iraq who fought against the Americans and was nicknamed “Al Haj Abu Abdallah,” and whose additional name is Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal Rahman al-Mawla.

According to these sources, al-Qarashi was involved in crimes against the Yazidis in Iraq in 2014.

President Trump tweeted last weekend that the identity of ISIS’ new leader is well-known to the United States, but did not provide details.

This is not the first time ISIS hid the names of its senior members; it has also used this method in the past. Protecting the new leader’s real name may indicate that ISIS is about to go underground and move towards guerrilla war in Iraq and Syria, especially given the fact that ISIS lost a considerable amount of the territory that it had under its control, on which it established the Islamic State. ISIS also lost the large army it had under its command, which has since disintegrated.

It is also possible that hiding the name of the new leader is intended to prevent the fragmentation of ISIS. The use of the al-Qarashi alias is meant to attract new volunteers into ISIS ranks to strengthen it.

ISIS has also announced, through its media arm known as Al Furqan, the appointment of a new spokesman for ISIS, Abu Hamza al-Qarashi, who replaces Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, killed in a U.S. raid in Syria.

What Is ISIS Likely to Do?

According to intelligence sources in the West, ISIS will endeavor, in the near future, to take revenge attacks for the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and to showcase operations that will prove that ISIS power has not diminished. With this in mind, ISIS is also expected to encourage their “dormant squads” and “lone wolves” to go out and commit terror attacks.

An ISIS branch in Sinai announced on November 2, 2019, that it is renewing its loyalty to ISIS and its new leader. They were joined by an ISIS branch in Somalia, and it is expected that other branches of ISIS will follow suit to show that ISIS is united and did not split following the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

In recent months, ISIS has lost senior and middle-level executives, and the new leader will have to rebuild its leadership ranks.

It is impossible to rule out the possibility that ISIS’ new leader will join forces with al-Qaeda. After all, ISIS leaders grew out of al-Qaeda, and despite their disputes and rivalries, they both share a common ideology.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi chose to hide before his death in an area that was controlled by al-Qaeda.

U.S. intelligence officials told the New York Times that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi paid sums of money to the “Hurras al-Din“ (Guardians of Religion Organization) which is affiliated with al-Qaeda, to provide protection for ISIS members and their families who fled Deir ez-Zor and Mosul.

The main difference between ISIS and al-Qaeda was that ISIS initiated the establishment of the Caliphate through the occupation of huge territories in Iraq and Syria and founded the “Islamic State,” whose capital was Raqqa. Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, concentrated on establishing its affiliates in various parts of the world.

As a result of ISIS’ success, terrorist branches in various parts of the world such as Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and other South Asian countries, such as the Philippines and Myanmar, abandoned al-Qaeda and swore allegiance to ISIS instead.

The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is a severe blow to the morale of ISIS, but ISIS has already lost leaders such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, so the death of the latest leader may be a temporary blow from which the organization can recover.

The new leader of ISIS will find it very difficult to re-take control of the vast territories the “Islamic State” lost in Syria and Iraq and will have to devise a new strategy.

The dream of the Islamic Caliphate ended even before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death.

ISIS’ new leader is now expected to become the number one target of U.S. intelligence, whom the U.S. will also seek to assassinate because ISIS and its new leader pose a threat to U.S. national security.