ISIS Leader al-Qurayshi Killed in U.S. Special Operations Raid

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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ISIS Leader al-Qurayshi Killed in U.S. Special Operations Raid


Q: Who was Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi?

A: Al-Qurayshi joined Al-Qaeda in Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. In 2008, U.S. forces detained him in Mosul, Iraq. He was then imprisoned in Camp Bucca, Iraq until 2009. 

Al-Qurayshi became the leader of ISIS in 2019, following the death of notorious terrorist Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Unlike al-Baghdadi, al-Qurayshi was relatively unknown to the United States’ national security apparatus due to his low-profile lifestyle. Al-Qurayshi’s appointment was not of great concern to security officials, as it was believed that his lack of notoriety would make recruiting a formidable challenge for ISIS. 


Q: What is the difference between a raid and airstrike? 

A: The 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) grants the president, as commander in chief, the power to pursue counterterrorism efforts and military action without consulting congress for prior approval. Much of this force occurs through air and drone strikes, an approach associated with a high degree of civilian casualties. According to AIRWARS estimates, which have been cited in congressional hearings, as many as 22,000-48,000 civilians have been killed by U.S. coalition strikes since 2001. 

Raids, as opposed to strikes, enhance operatives’ ability to distinguish between targets and noncombatants, yet place U.S. forces in a position of increased danger. 


Q: Why did President Biden authorize a raid versus an airstrike?

A: Because of the proximity of al-Qurayshi’s compound to civilians, U.S. forces determined that the best way to minimize civilian casualties was to conduct a ground-based raid against the building. This type of operation has become a staple in U.S. counterterrorism policy, especially when targeting high-level leaders, such as Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. 


Q: How did the killing of al-Baghdadi impact ISIS? Will this precedent elicit a similar reaction to al-Qurayshi’s death?

A: While al-Baghdadi facilitated massive growth of the ISIS caliphate from 2014 until his death in 2019, his absence did not cripple ISIS’ operational capabilities. U.S. Central Command and the Defense Intelligence Agency reported that al-Baghdadi’s death did not immediately deteriorate ISIS capabilities, particularly in Syria. 


Similarly, al-Qurayshi’s death is unlikely to significantly impact ISIS’ operational functionality. Terrorist groups are difficult to combat because of their decentralized organizational structure and ability to operate autonomously. ISIS still possesses a cohesive network of fighters, cells, and clandestine networks that can function without the explicit control or direction of a central leader. Furthermore, ISIS’ area of operations is dispersed throughout multiple countries, thus granting the group a broad array of influence and opportunities. 


Q: Who will be the next leader of ISIS?

A: In part, ISIS is led by a consultative council who will most likely be responsible for selecting the group’s next leader. However, there is little public insight into the selection process. 

ISIS has also been known to appoint leaders with widely ranging operation styles. For example, al-Baghdadi was a charismatic leader who could galvanize support for his jihadi cause, eliminating concerns about recruiting; inversely, al-Qurayshi provided operational support, but largely evaded the public eye and was not a notorious recruiter. This new leader will shed light on the needs of the group, thus granting the United States and others insight into ISIS current aims and priorities. 


Q: How does this impact the fight against terrorism in the Middle East?

A: While this operation highlights the United States’ ability to combat terrorism without a conventional military presence, terrorist groups and activity will remain a pervasive problem. The raid on al-Qurayshi displays that the United States is able to neutralize enemy combatants; however, the reactionary nature of over-the-horizon strikes and raids raises serious questions about whether the United States can systematically dismantle terrorist groups and operations in the long term. Removing top leadership does not seem to be a major impediment to the long-term functionality of ISIS.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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