After the leader’s assassination, “the Islamic State is probably planning revenge operations”

The February 3 assassination of Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi in northwestern Syria represents an undeniably severe blow for the terrorist organization, but it is also likely to trigger a campaign of “revenge” operations, a terrorism expert has warned.

US media said in recent days that the green light to eliminate Qurayshi was given by the White House months ago after establishing his location on the top floor of a house in northwestern Syria.

Michael Barak, a senior fellow at the International Counterterrorism Institute, where he heads the offices of Global Jihad and Palestinian Terrorism, told JNS that just as ISIS was embarking on a series of token attacks after the 2019 assassination of Qurayshi’s predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the same response could be happening now.

Qurayshi’s photographs are old, Barak noted, of his time in an Iraqi prison, while his spokesperson – a figure known as Abu Hamza – also made just one appearance in 2021.

A Turkmen from Iraq, Qurayshi studied at the University of Mosul in northern Iraq before becoming a senior Islamic State operative. “He was the chief engineer of the massacre of the Yazidis [in Iraq].” He also oversaw a number of ISIS attacks in Europe, according to Barak.

“He was called Qurayshi in order to bolster his claim to be a descendant of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, who hailed from a tribe of the same name in Arabia,” Barak said.

The assassination boosts Washington’s reputation somewhat after the crisis-filled withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer, Barak noted, and it shows a willingness “to act against the enemy.” But he stressed that the enemy in question is a sub-state adversary and that does not automatically translate into deterrence against state adversaries such as Russia.

Barak said Qurayshi’s location in northwestern Syria, near the Turkish border, raises questions. “If he was in Idlib, it’s an area controlled by a former branch of al-Qaeda called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, led by Abu Mohammad al-Julani,” he said.

Al-Julani was once linked to former ISIS leader Al-Baghdadi, who sent him to establish an ISIS branch in Syria. They later fell out and al-Julani then swore allegiance to al-Qaeda, before also leaving it and becoming an independent force more aligned with Syrian national rebel forces than global jihadism.

“Since that time, al-Julani has become independent,” Barak said, describing who controls the area where Qurayshi was hiding. “Al-Julani had ties to Turkey for help. Turkish posts defend Idlib against Hezbollah and Iraqi Shia militias, Iranian forces and the Russian military,” he added.

Acting under Turkish and Russian pressure, Al-Julani arrested and expelled foreign jihadist fighters, including from Chechnya.

“If the leader of the Islamic State hid in this area while other foreign jihadists were arrested, what does that mean?” Barack asked. “Why was he there? »

Parallel campaign: “Tear down the walls”

Prior to the assassination, ISIS forces loyal to Qurayshi had spent around 10 days fighting to get thousands of ISIS operatives out of a prison in Al-Hasakah in northeast Syria. Syria and against the Kurdish organization SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) which controlled the prison.

According to an investigation by the SDF, the attack on the prison was launched “after long preparations by the Islamic State”, according to a report by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, and included suicide bombers and a car bomb.

During the escape attempt, “a truck loaded with weapons and ammunition arrived at the prison gate so that the fleeing prisoners could equip themselves with weapons and ammunition during their escape,” the report said. . The SDF ended up crushing the attempt.

Such prison breaks are part of an organized campaign orchestrated by Qurayshi, Barak said, and were a continuation of policies established by the late al-Baghdadi.

“After al-Baghdadi lost Mosul in Iraq and Baghouz – the strongholds of the caliphate – he ordered his followers to launch a war of attrition, a guerrilla campaign, to strike at the enemy’s infrastructure, his power supply and its food outlets,” Barac said. “It also included clashes with Iranian-backed militias and attacks on their commanders as they slept in their homes.”

A parallel campaign, dubbed “Destroy the Walls”, was also launched by ISIS, targeting prisons and aiming to free ISIS operatives.

“They see the need to release prisoners as a top priority and say prisoners are being tortured and women are being sexually harassed,” Barak said.

The campaign even dates back to 2012-13 in Iraq before al-Baghdadi declared an Islamic caliphate.

“Proliferation of Islamic State fighters”

According to Barak’s assessments, ISIS activities are gradually expanding in the Middle East – in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – as well as in Africa, mainly in the Sahel region.

“There is a proliferation of Islamic State fighters in countries that did not see them before, such as Burkina Faso, Congo, Mozambique and the Central African Republic,” Barak said.

Both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda use these vast areas to finance their activities by smuggling weapons, narcotics and people, he added. “Local governments are treading water, suffering from corruption and cannot control this,” Barak said. “In Burkina Faso, the Islamic State managed to take control of a number of gold mines, as well as to force the local population to cooperate and extract gold for them.”

Using natural mines to finance its activities and recruit new members, the Islamic State is on the rise in parts of Africa. Its immediate objective, Barak said, is to overthrow the “near enemy”, defined as African governments and local Western targets, such as French forces in Mali.

In Afghanistan, the Islamic State accuses the Taliban of forgetting its jihadist ideology and seeking to find favor in the eyes of Westerners and Chinese. The Taliban’s decision to move a concentration of Uyghur fighters away from an area bordering China – west towards Afghanistan – is seen as evidence of this favor-seeking, according to ISIS.

“In its rhetoric, the Islamic State says that the Taliban have sold their souls, that they are waging a fake jihad. That it’s not real,” Barak explained. “The fact that the Taliban are sitting in hotels in Doha with American negotiators is further proof of this,” according to the rhetoric of the Islamic State.

ISIS released an infographic of its activity, showing an increase in 2021 when it claimed 2,748 terrorist attacks worldwide. Most of them (1,027) were in Iraq, followed by Nigeria (415) and Afghanistan (327), with Syria coming in fourth (368). Egypt’s Sinai was the site of 101 IS attacks.

“ISIS remains active in Sinai; it is not completely smothered. He is still carrying out ambushes against Egyptian security forces,” Barak said. “Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is trying to improve ties with local Sinai tribes and send the image of the Sini Bedouin tribes who work with Egypt to capture ISIS operatives. He tries to show that the tribal population is in favor of Egypt. This is true to some extent, even if ISIS continues its attacks against Egyptian personnel,” he said.

Meanwhile, worryingly in Syria, ISIS has been able to infiltrate refugee camps and indoctrinate children with radical jihadist ideology, Barak said. “There are sleeper cells among the refugees from Al-Hol in eastern Syria, and they are brainwashing the children. We saw videos of children using radical vocabularies. The West is not working successfully to prevent, deradicalize or reduce this brainwashing. It’s a ticking time bomb. The next generation of jihad is rising.

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