Islamic State’s leader may be dead but the organisation still lurks in the rubble

Analysis: Qurayshi’s killing by the US has to be set against January’s raid on a Syria prison, IS’s biggest attack for years

Being an Islamic State leader is not what it used to be. The death of the latest IS supremo, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, far from the heartland of the terror group’s rise in Iraq in a frugal home in the back blocks of Syria, is another painful blow to an organisation that only five years ago held significant territory in both countries and cast a shadow across an entire region.

Its slide ever since has been dramatic. Unable to hold land, its old guard wiped out, its finances shredded and rank and file depleted, IS looks – at face value – like a group that has had its day. And yet it still lurks amid the rubble of both countries, where it is slowly yet assuredly stirring.

To many who study IS, a prison break last month in north-eastern Syria looked to be a sign of things to come. Dozens of extremists were able to plan and gather in the heart of one of the biggest cities in the country’s north-east and launch an audacious bid to free the up to 2,000 men inside. The battle to reclaim the prison raged for six days and, while it was eventually returned to the control of the Kurdish forces who run the province, the gap between disaster and triumph was narrow.

The fighting was the first time since IS capitulated in the far eastern Syrian town of Baghuz in March 2019 that the remnants of the organisation had revealed itself en masse. That it could still stage a large operation in a major centre was a surprise to some – but not to Kurdish leaders, who had warned of this day since inheriting thousands of prisoners from the IS era and tens of thousands more of family members from towns and villages on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border.

A journey though what was formerly a centre of IS’s self-proclaimed caliphate late last year revealed broken, impoverished communities still unreconciled after nearly a decade of upheaval. On the Iraqi side of the Euphrates River, in Anbar, the grievances date back nearly a decade more to the ousting of Saddam Hussein in the 2003 US-led invasion.

A common theme in both countries remains that Sunni Muslims remain largely excluded from a flatlining political process and an ascendant regional push by the smaller Shia sect. Without Sunnis being able to meaningfully shape their outcomes while watching political rivals cement their gains, IS’s message of restoring lost glories and dignities will remain potent for some – just as it was when the terrorist juggernaut first gained steam.

It is consequently still active. In Deir Azzour province, the anti-IS coalition is carrying out raids against IS targets most days. Further west in Rojava, Kurdish counter-terrorism forces are also busy trying to weed out sleeper cells and ward off hit-and-run attacks – the type of low-intensity insurgency that the group used so effectively in Iraq from 2004 to 2011. Except, this time it can carry out such attacks on both sides of the river.

The risk of an escalation with a large number of prisoners and potential sympathisers in detention camps remains high. Kurdish leaders in Syria have been warning of the immense dangers in allowing thousands of IS men and families to gather on their soil and have urged the US and Europe to help find a solution.

The ghosts of Camp Bucca in Iraq, the US post-invasion detention centre that acted as a an academy for the forerunners of IS, looms large in Kurdish thinking. Qurayshi was an alumnus, so too was his predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, his anointed successor, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, and the IS number two, Sami Jassem, who was arrested in Idlib last year and handed over to Iraqi forces.

All four leaders had chosen Idlib as a refuge. With so many itinerants passing through and nondescript homes to hide in, many of the group’s most committed members now call it home. Its role as a new ground zero, so close to Turkey, has sounded a new alarm. Even more disturbing though would be to ignore the menace gathering in the shadows elsewhere in Syria.


Martin Chulov Middle East correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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