What is the future of ISIS following the death of their leader?

  • 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.

Medlir Mema, PhD
Fellow, Middle East Policy Council


The killing of ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi has brought into sharp focus the intention of the United States to continue targeting ISIS leadership. Even though this high-profile killing is a significant victory in the fight against the Islamic State, many people do not believe that the threat posed by the militant group is likely to disappear anytime soon. If anything, al-Qurayshi’s death is a reminder of the ongoing threat of the Islamic State and its ability to reconstitute itself, which is why many wait in anticipation for what the United States’ military strategy will be in regard to ISIS.  

Some have drawn a direct connection between last month’s attack on a jail by ISIS fighters and the death of al-Qurayshi.  According to an op-ed in Yedioth Ahronoth by Ron Ben Yishai, it was the carelessness of the fighters in the aftermath of the attack that “led to [the] identity of Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi being revealed. … The jail, in the city of Al-Hasakah, in north east Syria was attacked in a battle that lasted nearly two weeks, and resulted in the escape of hundreds of prisoners. Abu Ibrahim is believed to have commanded his forces, carrying out the attack against the predominantly Kurdish force that is backed by several hundred U.S. special forces fighters deployed to fight IS in the region. … Before the attack on the prison, the IS leader kept a low profile and his identity was known only to a few. … It seems some of the fighters, who were exhilarated by their apparent success, revealed their leader’s location and enabled the American forces to pinpoint the exact building where he was living with his family, near the border with Turkey.”  

Writing for Arab News, Baria Alamuddin argues that the “plague of terrorism” will never go away so long as the underlying socio-economic conditions that give rise to it still persist: “We can never even begin to control the plague of terrorism without definitively addressing grinding poverty and shocking disparities in wealth, while millions languish in hellhole refugee camps with zero life-prospects other than the opportunity to pick up a gun and impose suffering upon others. … With Quraishi’s death, the opportunity presents itself for a consolidated crackdown upon terrorism and the causes of terrorism. Yet with all indications signaling that this opportunity is already being missed, the risk is that his death simply marks the passing-on of the terrorist baton to a new and ever-more radical and brutal generation.”  

Jordan Times’ Amer Al-Sabaileh writes about a different dimension of the question, focusing on the developments which have occurred since ISIS lost substantial territorial control. Al-Sabaileh argues that these developments further complicate dealing with the Islamic State: “The American operation is not just targeting Daesh morally and structurally, but it also aims to prevent the terrorist group from moving between multiple regions and carrying out complex operations. As such, the killing of Qurayshi serves Washington and its allies, especially after the growing strength of Daesh and its strong return to the scene recently. This operation can be described as hitting the backbone of Daesh at a critical time, during its ascent, aiming to disrupt its return. … However, there is no doubt that Daesh today is different from what it was in the past when they overcame the shock of losing their first leader Baghdadi. … Daesh is no longer seeking territory control nor declaring a caliphate, it is back to play the role of a terrorist group willing to engage and operate secretly, more military oriented and less lone wolf style which makes the challenge today even more difficult because of its wide presence and different models of attack.”    

In an op-ed written for Arab News and reposted by Albawaba, Hafed Al-Ghwell holds the view that the threat of ISIS is hardly eliminated with the death of its leader. He argues that this is due to the organization’s constant adaptation and the international community’s failure to present a coordinated front: “Daesh has morphed into a formidable global security threat for an international coalition that appears to be asleep at the wheel. A disconnect persists between the frequency and lethality of attacks by Daesh militants, and the global response. These gaps, along with power vacuums on the ground, have allowed militant cells to survive and continue operating in the unpoliced swaths of Syrian and Iraqi territory. … Because of the failure to remedy glaring shortfalls in intelligence, security, and governance, the Daesh threat will continue to evolve and metastasize, with disastrous consequences. The coalition must revisit its broad mission scope, which has been undermined by a myopic focus on the kinetic rather than the power vacuums created by its members’ tensions, rivalries, and mismatched interests.”    

This blow against ISIS could not have come at a better time for U.S. President Joe Biden, who has been struggling with low domestic approval ratings. The editor-in-chief of the Independent Persian, Camelia Entekhabifard, suggests that the ISIS leader’s death should not distract from Mr. Biden’s other policy failures: “With the Idlib operation, Biden attempted to cover up the defeat in Afghanistan and leaving of 30 million people to slaughter by Taliban, hunger, suffering, torture and death. He wants to divert the attention of world public opinion and the American people with an important and major operation that killed the ISIS leader. … But for the American people, even the death of a major terrorist like al-Qurashi in Syria’s Idlib is of less importance compared to inflation and high prices of petrol and fuel which have led to more anger. … What’s sure is that such foreign operations won’t help buy domestic credibility for Democrats or fix the passive face of the US in the international community.”    

The state-sanctioned Tehran Times also characterizes last week’s raid by U.S. special forces as an exercise in propaganda, which comes with a high price tag of innocent civilian deaths: “As the report goes on, we become more and more aware that this is nothing but a psy-op, and a propaganda operation. It doesn’t seem far-fetched at all to expect another ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ conquering Hollywood in the coming months. … This is the second raid conducted in Biden’s tenure that has involved the death of the civilians. In an August 29 drone strike in Kabul, ten people were killed, including seven children. … A propaganda operation like that was highly needed so that Biden would restore his reputation among the American people. … Biden sought to pull a page out of Obama’s playbook: play the ‘propaganda operation’ card, and pray to God that the Americans would be fooled.”  

Finally, there are people such as Israel Hayom’s Meir Ben-Shabbat who see the military raid as a great opportunity for the U.S. military to signal its willingness to re-engage in the region and push back against Iran’s regional aspirations: “[T]he importance of the raid needs to be measured by the amount of influence it has on the other players in the Middle East, not just by the amount of damage to ISIS. … The benefit the US can derive from this operation extends beyond ISIS – it could also affect the Iran issue as well as influence other players in the region. The potential benefit in this regard is tremendous. With this operation, the Biden administration can now rebuff those criticizing it of apathy toward developments in the Middle East. At the expense of ISIS, the administration can deliver the message, ‘We’re here,’ and moreover, that the United States of America is capable of allocating sufficient attention to the Middle East, even when it’s busy with other regional crises across the globe. … These messages are relevant to Iran and its proxies and are important to America’s allies in the Middle East.”

  • 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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