International relations, National security | The World

11 February 2022

The raid that killed Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi shows that the Biden administration has the potential to responsibly navigate the fight against jihadist terrorism, despite its other troubles, Jacinta Carroll writes.

President Joe Biden’s announcement that a United States Special Forces raid has resulted in the death of Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi is the most significant blow to the terrorist group since the death of its founding leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

But what does this mean for the future of IS? Will this latest high-value target attack seriously degrade the group? Should retaliation be expected? And what does this say about American foreign policy?

To begin to unpack these questions, consider al-Qurayshi’s role in IS and how the group is now placed.

Born Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla in Mosul, northern Iraq, al-Qurayshi played a leading role throughout the history of IS. Notably, he was the group’s religious authority. He guided the development of its ideology, as well as being a key strategist in planning its successful capture of territory in Iraq and Syria and its short-lived ‘caliphate’.

This makes him one of the main people responsible for the crimes of that regime. He is notorious for being the reported mastermind of the assault on the Yazidis of northern Iraq.

As al-Baghdadi’s deputy, it was no surprise that he took up the mantle of the IS ‘caliph’ following the previous leader’s death in 2019 – which came in strikingly similar circumstances to his own. Like al-Qurayshi, al-Baghdadi died after detonating an explosive device during a targeted raid by the United States.

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Al-Qurayshi faced the difficult task of trying to rebuild IS after resounding defeat. His main effort was to strengthen the group’s global terrorist network, seeking to keep the brand alive in Africa, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the Middle East.

When his death came, the group hadn’t yet been able to replicate its former success in its heartland of Iraq and Syria, but it had begun to flex its muscle once again. So much so that it is likely its recent activity was the deciding factor in the American decision to target its leader now.

On 20 January, IS attacked the Hasakeh prison in north-eastern Syria, attempting to break out thousands of its members. This was the biggest in a series of attempted raids on prisons over the past two years, and the culmination of an increasing number of such attacks.

The strength and scale of the Hasakeh incident demonstrated IS was at least partly succeeding at its plans. It took around 10 days for Syrian Democratic Forces and coalition partners to defeat the attackers.

Taking out IS’s lead planner and strategist is an emphatic demonstration that the terrorist group is not as strong as it was, and its efforts are not going as planned, but by no means does it signify even the beginning of the end of IS.

The fight against IS and international jihadist terrorism is a complex, multi-theatre, and long-term process. The global spread of the network means that it remains active around the world, and its decentralised management means that much of the day-to-day activity of these other groups will be largely unaffected.

That said, al-Qurayshi’s death is significant. It will make things that much harder and further dent the success of IS in the region. IS will propagandise the ‘martyrdom’ of its leader and will soon name his successor but it remains unlikely that the next leader will have the internal standing and strategic acumen of al-Qurayshi.

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Al-Qurayshi’s profile as theologian, strategist and experienced jihadi will be hard to match, but onlookers should be aware that IS’s propaganda machine will pump up the credentials of whoever emerges next.

Little is known about the senior leadership of the group, as IS has made a point of shrouding its leaders in secrecy and trying at all times to protect them by minimising their movements and hiding their location.

Indeed, IS will likely now be on the hunt for who may have been involved, whether deliberately or inadvertently, in the United States finding out where al-Qurayshi was. The group will also be keen to be seen to be retaliating and will likely classify any new terrorist attacks by its adherents as reprisals.

The style of the raid on al-Qurayshi is arguably most important. The Biden administration has placed great emphasis on its precise nature, and its decision to opt for the approach that would best minimise non-combatant casualties.

It is no easy thing to send a formation of helicopter gunships and two dozen special forces operators deep into a contested environment and spend time alerting neighbours and occupants of the building of their presence and the need to evacuate.

These operators were in harm’s way, and it would have been easier from a purely tactical perspective to conduct a strike from a safe distance, but the government chose otherwise, electing the ‘right, but hard’ over the ‘wrong, but easy’ path and to publicly conform to the Laws of Armed Conflict.

Ultimately, the details of how successful their efforts to reduce civilian casualties are yet to fully emerge. The government has said al-Qurayshi is responsible for all deaths, as it was him who detonated the explosive device.

On balance, the Biden administration has taken a sensible and strategic approach to this. It needed to. It has faced a challenging first year in office in foreign policy, including its highly problematic withdrawal from Afghanistan and the current crisis in Ukraine.

With it, President Biden demonstrated a determination to be actively engaged internationally in the fight against jihadi terrorism, and to do so in a way that is responsible and grounded in international law.

The world is watching how the United States and its partners engage with global threats, whether they are terrorists or states, and the raid on al-Qurayshi provides a positive and much-needed sign of focus, cohesion, and action.

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