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The jihadist's suicide seems to continue the terrorist group's declining fortunes. But it remains a force in the Middle East and beyond. 

At the start of February, Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi followed the organization's previous leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden by dying in a US military operation.

The 45-year-old Iraqi – whose real name was Amir Mohammed Saeed Abdul-Rahman al-Mawla – was tracked by US intelligence to the rebel-held Idlib area in north-western Syria. He was living in the village of Atmeh, close to the Turkish border, on the third floor of a building above another family who were not affiliated with the group. 

On 3 February, just before daybreak, helicopters delivered two dozen commandos to the area, with drones and fighter planes as back-up. US Marines closed in on the three-storey cinderblock structure and ordered everyone inside to surrender. Rather than being apprehended, Al-Qurayshi detonated a suicide vest, killing himself, his wife, and his children. 

What was IS's operational strength at the start of 2021? 

Though no longer a force capable of governing its self-proclaimed caliphate as between 2014 and 2016, IS remains a very active and dangerous insurgent group in the Middle East, notably in rural Iraq and Syria. 

The recent Hasaka prison break – organised by Al-Qurayshi and which attempted to break out IS fighters from a Kurdish-run prison in northeast Syria – serves as a warning that the group can still carry out large-scale assaults.

IS has been seeking to free its fighters from the jail for the last year, according to State Department spokesman Ned Price, who applauded the Syrian Democratic Force's "capable efforts" in battling the militants following the jailbreak.

According to local elders, support for IS has increased in the region due to Arab conflict with the Kurdish-led administration, which the Arabs accuse of discriminating against them. (The SDF denies this.) Nevertheless, according to Al Naba, IS assaults in Syria seem to be decreasing, just as they have in Iraq. In Syria, the IS claimed responsibility for 31 attacks and 74 deaths in 2021, compared to 45 attacks and 95 deaths each month in 2020. 

However, the fact that IS is known to under-report its strikes in Syria's central desert complicates such statistics. According to analysts Gregory Waters and Charlie Winter, in 2020, the group claimed only 25% of attacks attributed to it by local actors. This deliberate – and unusual –pattern of undercounting is possibly part of a strategy to establish itself in the area without attracting too much attention.

How much does the leader’s death weaken IS?

A senior Biden administration official predicted that the death of Al-Qurayshi, one of the few surviving legacy leaders, will lead to chaos inside IS. According to the report, he was integrally engaged in many of its activities, including many of the foreign operations.

The Iraqi jihadist had been a key commander in IS's forerunner, the Islamic State of Iraq – a branch of al-Qaeda – since shortly after the US war that deposed Saddam Hussein in 2003. He was declared head of IS after his predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, killed himself during a US operation in Syria in 2019.

According to research by Feras Kilani, a BBC journalist who interviewed Al-Qurayshi and conducted an investigation into IS's leadership following Al-Baghdadi, Al-Qurayshi joined the armed revolt against the US occupation of Iraq between 2003 and 2004.

US soldiers arrested Al-Qurayshi in Mosul in 2008 and kept him at Camp Bucca, a US detention facility – but he was freed in 2009. He assisted Al-Baghdadi in gaining control of Mosul in northern Iraq in 2014.

He played a role in the Yazidi genocide, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of males and the captivity and enslavement of women and girls. He also coordinated mass executions of Shia civilians and security personnel.

Though more low-profile than his predecessor Al-Baghdadi, the death of this brutal operator – nicknamed “the Destroyer” – is a considerable blow to IS as they seek to regroup and gather strength.

Are IS more influential in Syria and Iraqi or internationally?

Though obviously diminished since it held power over large swathes of Iraq, United Nations has assessed that the organisation still had up to 10,000 militants in Syria and Iraq in early 2021.

The majority of its operations are still carried out in those two countries. But it is capable of striking internationally due to possessing the same kind of decentralised system operated by Al-Qaeda. Its tens of thousands of warriors in branches located in countries from West Africa to South-east Asia are not always reliant on the central leadership in Iraq or Syria for guidance. 

Who is likely to Succeed Al-Qurayshi? 

Experts believe that killing another leader will do little to combat IS. Nonetheless, Al-Qurayshi’s death is a severe blow, according to Guido Steinberg of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

"It will be difficult for IS to find someone who not only has religious authority, but is also recognized as powerful in military concerns at this time," Steinberg said. 

Many prospective leaders have perished because of anti-terror campaigns, and the number of candidates is tiny. According to Steinberg, Al-Qurayshi's replacement will most likely be from Iraq, as IS has re-emerged as a powerful organisation in the country in the last three years.

Who are the other major rival terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq?

Many countries in Islamic regions, both in Africa and Asia, are drowning in Jihadist battles between terrorist groups and governments. Syria and Iraq are some of the most affected countries in the world. Some of the top terrorist groups in these countries include Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or the IS.

Al-Qaeda was created in 1988 by Osama bin Laden who died in 2011 and was taken over by Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al-Qaeda has gone globally but is predominant in the Middle East. 

The IS was founded in 2014 by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and currently has no leader. This group broke away from Al-Qaeda and claimed Syria, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Yemen. 

Other terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq include Al-Nusra Front, Hezbollah, Jaish al-Islam, and Failaq al-Rahman.

These terrorist groups are known for causing the deaths of millions of people worldwide through bombings, jacking planes, and raids. 

Written By: Olivium Staff.


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