Clues to Al-Baghdadi's Successor
It has been almost two months since Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder of the Islamic State’s (ISIL) self-declared caliphate was killed in a US airstrike near Idlib, Syria, just one day before his spokesman Abu Hassan al-Muhajir was killed not too far away in Jarablus. One week later, ISIL’s al-Furqan Media Institute published a statement by the new spokesman Abu Hamza al-Qurashi declaring Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi as the successor of al-Baghdadi and the new emir of the Muslims.
Abu Ibrahim al Hashimi al-Qurayshi is a new alias for ISIL’s new leader designed to obscure his identityand prevent targeting by counter-terrorism forces. There is a good chance that Amir Muhammed Sa’eed al-Mawla also known as Hajji Abdullah al-‘Afri, is the new ISIL emir. This article explains what this succession means for ISIL and the world, and what we can glean from the announcement of the new leader.
First, the ISIL announcement indicates that the new emir of ISIL is an Iraqi. In the announcement, the absence of “al-Muhajir” (or migrant) title to Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi indicates that Abu Ibrahim is local to the area. Selecting a local emir is a wise move as it guarantees the unity of ISIL in Iraq as the Iraqi members who constitute the majority of ISIL ranks and files would not accept a non-Iraqi emir for the organization.
Second, Abu Ibrahim is not related to al-Baghdadi. Although various analysts predicted al-Baghdadi was succeeded by his brother Jum’a (or even a cousin), the fact that the announced title of Abu Ibrahim is “al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi” in contrast to al-Baghdadi’s “al-Husseini al-Qurayshi” is a clue that these are entirely different families and tribes, as the new leader has a unique lineage.
The ISIL claim that the emir is an Iraqi decedent of the Quraysh (through the Hashimi line instead of al-Husseini) gives us a clue to evaluate the possibility that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s chief deputy, Hajji Abdullah al-'Afri, is the new caliph Abu Ibrahim.While al-'Afri is thought to be an ethnic Turkmen like many from Tal Afar, where his nisba (al-Afri) indicates he comes from. Although his larger tribal affiliation with the al-Mawali is not Arab, and one of his kunyas (Qardash) is a Turkish word for "brother,” it is also known that al-Mawali tribe has sub-tribes with Arab origin. A bigger clue that Hajji Abdullah could be Abu Ibrahim is that one of the clans of the al-Mawali claims a descent from ‘Abbas Abdul Mutalib al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi—the Prophet’s paternal uncle. This is very similar to the case of Hajji Iman (aka Abu ‘Alaa al-‘Afri, and more famously, Abu Ali al-Anbari), the late deputy of al-Baghdadi, was also a Turkman from Tal’ Afar who also claimed to be rooted from al-Quraysh.
The description of Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi according to the statement of an Iraqi/Syrian veteran jihadist who fought in the occupation against US troops, and religious scholar who claims al-Quraysh lineage through the Hashim branch is identical to that of Hajji Abdullah al-'Afri, the deputy of al-Baghdadi and former Shari'a emir of the organization.
Al-'Afri's possible succession of al-Baghdadi is likely to be smooth for the organization. Al-'Afri ran the day to day operations during al-Baghdadi’s post-2014 leadership, as the caliph had to remain hidden due to the security situation. Even after the fall of the caliphate, al-‘Afri filled the following positions simultaneously: deputy caliph, leader of Delegated Committee, and ran military operations. In this way, the elimination of al-Baghdadi does not create leadership vacuum or lack of leadership skills and credential.
One additional detail in the new ISIL spokesman’s most statement on succession hinted that Abu Ibrahim gained further legitimacy of being appointed according to the “will” of al-Baghdadi. This strengthens Abu Ibrahim's position as selection of an emir by his predecessor is strong source of legitimacy in the Islamic tradition. Additionally, Abu Ibrahim already has a strong legitimacy as he is described by the spokesman to be a Shari'a scholar and Jihad veteran from Quraysh. This degree of legitimacy decreases (but does not totally eliminate) the odds of large scale dissent concerning the legitimacy of the new caliph.
Al-'Afri is also supported by Iraqi Tal’Afri ISIL members, specifically by those who have a strong role in the finance and administration of the organization and by senior leaders of ISIL who had been appointed and commanded by Hajji Abdullah in the last two years.
Although the new emir was selected according to al-Baghdadi’s guidance, al-Baghdadi’s replacement by anyone except al-‘Afri could breed legitimacy issues, a leadership crisis, and exacerbate the current schism. Given al-Baghdadi’s experience (over ten years as an IS movement member), al-Baghdadi most likely prioritized the unity of the organization in his will. This theory of succession is in line with the fake “A’maq” release that claimed that Abdullah “Qardash” replaced al-Baghdadi before his death in the day to day running of the "Muslims' affairs". While probably accurate in several ways concerning Hajji Abdullah’s central role, as corroborated by other sources, the source of this misinformation—most likely members of an ISIL dissenter faction—emphasized Hajji Abdullah’s Turkmen heritage (Qardash) to preemptively discredit him by painting him as non-Arab.
The legitimacy of the caliph in the eyes of the distant wilayas of ISIL is important in its own right, and augmented by the human, financial, and media support from ISIL’s Delegated Committee and associated caliphate level departments. In case the new emir of ISIL maintains its control over ISIL finance – which is likely due to the strong relationship between Hajji Abdullah and Hajji Hamid al-Jiburi, the distant wilayas have every incentive to stay loyal to ISIL core and the media orchestrated campaign of taped allegiance swearing to Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi is ongoing and no schism or disapproval has been voiced against him that did not already exist under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The removal of al-Baghdadi and the confiscation of documents about his organization will inevitably impact the organization and its modus operandi. The new emir will face increased security pressure on himself, online media outlets, and ISIL financing. The extended family of al-Baghdadi, who seem to have been deeply entrenched in senior positions within ISIL, could lose significance in internal battles with the Iraqi Turkmen.
Al-Qaeda’s campaign to discourage ISIL members and supporters and attract them to al-Qaeda has been highly visible and will increase in scope. However, al-Qaeda is too weak to make the best of the killing of its major rival, one who put in motion the schism that has devastated the larger jihadist movement. Al-Qaeda has no presence in Iraq, and even its Hurras al-Din franchise in Syria disassociated itself, deepening the schism. Iraq and Syria are the two main strongholds of ISILwhere al-Qaeda cannot overcome ISIL.
The world will undoubtedly feel some of the consequences of al-Baghdadi's removal. Having avoided leadership vacuum, chaos, and schism, ISIL is highly expected to retaliate for its slain emir by inspiring and/or launching terror attacks outside of its core area and affiliates. ISIL has the tradition of avenging the death of senior figures of jihad. Al-Baghdadi launched a series of attacks in retaliation for the deaths of al-Qaeda emir Osama bin Laden, ISIL deputy emir Abu Muhammed al-‘Adnani, and its military chief Abu Abdul Rahman al-Bilawi. These retaliatory attacks had significant security impact and produced large numbers of innocent victims.
Although the leadership decapitation of ISIL has impacted the organization, the removal of al-Baghdadi and his spokesman can be only seen as a nominal success by counter-terrorist forces. ISIL’s recovering organizational structure, strong administration and finance, well-established ideology, and the absence of other alternatives for the marginalized Sunni population in Iraq and Syria, as well as the visible withdrawal from fighting ISIL by the anti-ISIL coalition, can provide new oxygen for the embers of an insurgency that has proved once before able to exploit such opportunities.