Islamic State announces new leader as terror group sets out to rebuild

New caliph must remain hidden to stay alive while ruling over fragmented organisation

The announcement that Abu Hassan al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi has been appointed Islamic State's third commander is intended to boost the relevance of the central leadership of the movement at a time local branches operate independently and step up attacks in Syria and Iraq.

He has, so far, been identified only by his nom de guerre. Nothing is known about his background although he is likely to have been selected as he is an Iraqi who belongs to the core group of al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadis imprisoned for resisting the 2003 occupation of Iraq.

The choice of al-Qurayshi as a last name signifies he claims descent from al-Quryash, the tribe of the prophet Muhammad. This gives him credibility with the faithful.

In an audio message, the terror group's new spokesman, Abu Omar al-Muhajir, said Islamic State members had "pledged allegiance [to Abu Hassan] as an emir over believers and the caliph of Muslims". Abu Omar also confirmed the death of the former chief, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi, and ex-spokesman Abu Hamza a-Qurayshi during a US commando raid in early February on their abode in Syria's northwestern Idlib province.

Since the wanted men were living discreetly only 15km from the hideout where Islamic State founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi blew himself up during a similar October 2019 US commando operation, the new caliph might not choose to dwell in Idlib. It is ruled by Islamic State rival and al-Qaeda sibling Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, which might have leaked information on the men's whereabouts to Turkey or the US-sponsored Kurdish militia controlling northeastern Syria.

Foreign fighters

Under Turkey's tutelage Tahrir al-Sham has systematically conscripted or expelled radical Arab elements and foreign fighters sheltering in the province. Branded a terrorist group, Tahrir al-Sham seeks US recognition as a legitimate Syrian opposition movement and has had some success in this effort.

Established in 2014, Islamic State – also known as Isis – had a “caliphate” that stretched from north-central Syria to northeastern Iraq and ruled up to 12 million people until 2017 when local Syrian and Iraqi forces bolstered by Western air power routed the movement.

After its final stand at the Syrian village of Baghuz in March 2019, fugitive fighters found refuge in the eastern Syrian desert and northeastern Iraqi mountains.

The UN has estimated their number at 10,000. They belong to factions headed by sub-emirs who owe their allegiance to the commander of the faithful and caliph. Since he must remain hidden to stay alive, his reach is uncertain and control tenuous. Nevertheless, the movement continues to gain recruits among disaffected poor youths in Syria, Iraq and, recently, Lebanon.

While Islamic State's hyperactive and deadly branches in north and sub-Saharan Africa and central and south Asia swear fealty to the caliph, they are fully independent and expanding.