Following the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the terrorist group announced Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, as their new leader. Despite limited information regarding the identity of al-Qurayshi, what do we know about him so far?
On Thursday, ISIS confirmed the death of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and spokesman Abu Hasan al-Muhajir via an audio message. The audio announced Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi as the new leader and Abu Hamza al-Qurayshi as the new spokesman. While the message stated that Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi was Baghdadi’s chosen successor, the announcement took others by surprise given the lack of information about the new leader. It leads us to the question: what can we garner about Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi?
The announcement of the new leader and spokesman mirrors the announcement of Abu Hamza al-Muhajir and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the leaders of ISIS’ previous iteration the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Both men were unknown individuals when they assumed leadership positions in 2006. This level of anonymity has even been echoed by ISIS Telegram channels themselves, which have revealed very little about the group’s new leader. Furthermore, Baghdadi had a credited history having studied a PhD in Islamic theology in Iraq as a student and he was at least labelled by some of his contemporaries as a religious scholar. It raises immediate questions about Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi’s background and whether he has the credentials to lead ISIS.
It is also notable that the group has been careful to appoint a leader with the nasab al-Qurayshi, which was the tribe of the Prophet Mohammed, and al-Hashimi, the Prophet Mohammed’s clan that was a part of the Quraysh tribe. For ISIS, ensuring that the leader is from the Quraysh tribe is key in bestowing him with legitimacy as the so-called caliph. While maintaining knowledge of family heritage has strong roots in Islamic and Arab practises, including in Iraq where ISIS has its roots and the Gulf where the former spokesman was from, there is no evidence yet to suggest that he is from the Quraysh tribe or the Hashimi clan.
In any case, ISIS’ recent fake claims of attacks in Iraq and Syria show that it is an unreliable source of information. On 18th September, Iraq’s Security Media Cell said that “81% of the news was fake” on Amaq, one of ISIS’ most prominent media channels. Other claims stretching back even further, such as the false claim of the 2017 Las Vegas attack, shed further doubt on the veracity of its claims. In the cases when attacks have been verified, numbers are often found to be inflated or civilian casualties were portrayed as military casualties to bolster the group’s claims.
Even if this nasab is true, social media users from across Saudi Arabia and elsewhere across the Middle East have been swift to express anger that anyone from a group they consider to be profoundly un-Islamic could claim lineage from the Prophet Muhammad, which they regard as an insult. Likening it to a scene from an Arabic comedy, one noted its rather “too perfect” appeal to authority in referencing the Prophet’s Mohammed’s lineage. Some jokingly asked if he was related to the famous perfume and oud scent retailer of the same name, Abdul Samad al-Qurayshi.
A number of initial reactions also queried the link between Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi and Abu Muhammad al-Huseini al-Hashimi, a Saudi of Syrian origin who was a vocal critic of Baghdadi. While it is unlikely that the two are related, it does raise further questions about whether Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi will be able to hold together the schisms that had been developing long before Baghdadi’s death. In July 2017, the same critic released a scathing assessment of ISIS and Baghdadi entitled, “The Hashimi Advice to the Emir of the Islamic State”. The critique mentioned how the caliphate was being “eaten up region by region” following its losses and claimed that “if it is a caliphate, then certainly it is not a caliphate of the Muhammedan message” as it was “the farthest thing from the prophetic methodology”.
The criticism relates back to the dispute between the Binalis and the Hazimis, a complex feud that has its roots in the usage and theological justifications of takfir or excommunication. During these splits, Baghdadi was reportedly personally involved in quelling these disputes, intervening directly in September 2017 and ordering the detention of many Hazimis, such as Abu Hafs al-Jazrawi and Abu Maram al-Jazairi.
In light of the unknown personality of Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi, will these splits further come to light and contribute towards the fracturing of ISIS? Will Abu Ibrahim be able to reinvigorate the group’s supporter base? By all accounts, this will be a difficult task. Returning full circle, this once again reflects the difficult task put in front of Abu Hamza al-Muhajir and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi in 2006. While both men were credited with steering the group through a difficult period after the near annihilation of ISI in Iraq, they also led ISI through a period of stagnation and irrelevance.
With ISIS’ recent edition of its weekly magazine al-Naba dwindling down to eight pages – its lowest in years – this certainly does not put ISIS in a position of strength. And while Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi may provide ISIS with the appearance of an orderly transition after the loss of territory and its caliphate, a new leader does not bring with it new capabilities: the group is still as fragile as it was last week, continues to project an image of strength, and is at its lowest point since 2014.