ISIL’s new ‘caliph’ may be a bigger threat than his predecessor

We need to accept eliminating its leaders with tactical strikes will not bring an end to ISIL or the political violence it perpetrates.

A Syrian Democratic Forces soldier points a gun outside a prison while in clash with the ISIL fighters in Hasakeh
A Syrian Democratic Forces soldier points a gun outside a prison during a clash with ISIL fighters in Hasakeh, Syria on January 22, 2022, in this screen grab taken from a video recorded on January 22, 2022 [North Press Agency Digital/ Handout via Reuters]

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS) declared its third so called “caliph” earlier this month: Abu Hasan al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. Abu Hasan replaces Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, who led the armed group for two years before he was killed in a United States raid in the Idlib province in northern Syria in February.

ISIL is no longer a global terrorist threat attacking European capitals, or a group that holds territory. Yet it is still inflicting damage on security forces and civilians alike in Iraq and Syria. It is also still active, through its regional affiliates, in Africa and Afghanistan, launching guerrilla-style hit-and-run attacks against security forces and massacring civilians.

Because most ISIL cells across these geographies are autonomous and financially self-sufficient, February’s decapitation strike has likely not diminished the group’s network in any significant way.

The slain second ISIL caliph, Abu Ibrahim, did not have the high profile or the notoriety of his predecessor, ISIL’s first self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed in 2019. The armed group’s new caliph is reportedly the older brother of Abu Bakr. Therefore, the February assassination might have unpredictable outcomes, such as ISIL’s new leader emerging as a more charismatic figure, inheriting the legacy of his younger brother, and thus strengthening the group.

All this demonstrates that eliminating a prominent leader may not always end or even significantly damage an armed group. Moreover, it shows that, at least in the long term, tactical strikes by a single country can never be as effective in curbing political violence as multilateral peace and development strategies.

ISIL’s recovery under Abu Ibrahim

After the October 27, 2019 death of al-Baghdadi, and the naming of Abu Ibrahim as ISIL’s leader just a few days later, in many ways the group seemed little affected by the change of leadership. It continued to stage attacks against American and Iraqi forces in Iraq, and despite clearly being on the back foot due to the recent collapse of its self-declared caliphate, seemed nowhere near ready to give up the fight.

Even the COVID-19 pandemic that hit the world in early 2020 did not do much harm to ISIL, as its fighters had already been practising “social distancing” and sheltering-in-place in sleeper cells for some time. In fact, the pandemic provided some respite to the group, as the world focused its energy on defeating the virus and did not pay as much close attention to the activities of ISIL operatives in hiding.

As the pandemic raged, ISIL established a presence in the Hamrin Basin, the rugged and impenetrable territory between the Iraqi provinces of Salah al-Din, Kirkuk, and Diyala. Just in the Diyala province, ISIL killed 11 civilians in a Shia village in October 2021, ambushed and killed five Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in November 2021, and killed 11 Iraqi soldiers as they slept in their barracks in January 2022.  At the same time that the barracks were hit, ISIL launched an audacious and sophisticated raid to liberate its fighters held in a Kurdish-controlled prison in Hasakeh, Syria. In eastern Syria alone, there had been 342 armed confrontations between ISIL and Syrian Kurdish forces since 2021.

During this period, ISIL also launched many damaging attacks in Afghanistan and Africa.

In August 2021, for example, the Afghanistan affiliate of ISIL, the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), launched a suicide attack at the Kabul airport killing at least 72 people, including 13 members of the US military.

In Africa, ISIL has seven affiliates threatening 11 countries. Besides its branches in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, ISIL acquired four affiliates in sub-Saharan Africa and the Sahel: in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, the Islamic State in Greater Sahara; in Nigeria, the Islamic State West African Province; in Somalia, the Islamic State in Somalia; and in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique, the Islamic State Central African Province.

No silver bullet

The re-emergence, or more accurately, the endurance of ISIL in all of the aforementioned locations after the killing of its first leader indicates that the armed group will likely continue to pose a threat after the killing of its second leader.

ISIL still benefits from a functioning organisational bureaucracy, an enduring ideology and communal support. Armed organisations that benefit from all three tend to survive the death of their leader.

ISIL had a high functioning military-style top-down bureaucracy when it administered a “territorial caliphate” in Iraq and Syria between 2014 and 2018. Today, the group’s bureaucratic structure is not nearly as robust, but it still appears to be organised under a hierarchy. The prison break in Hasakeh, for example, is believed to have been approved directly by Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi himself and his inner circle.

This bureaucratic system, with clear chains of command, allowed the group to endure the aftermath of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s assassination, and it will most likely ensure that it survives the aftermath of Abu Ibrahim’s killing.

Indeed, merely weeks after the killing of its leader in Syria, the group announced a new caliph and appears to be continuing with business as usual.

Over the years, it has routinised its leadership succession, where the leader is appointed by a council, with the approval of the other branches, so that the legitimacy of the caliph derives from the position and not the individual.

ISIL also adheres to a violent Salafist ideology that does not depend on a leader for its articulation or propagation. As a set of ideas, it existed before ISIL and there is no indication that it will cease to exist with the elimination of any particular leader or political figure in the future.

As for popular support, while no longer a group that inspires attacks from San Bernadino to Nice, the group still appears to have pockets of support across vast regions that allow it to continue with its operations. The ISIL presence in the Hamrin Basin, for example, is enabled by villagers who cooperate with the group by providing its fighters with shelter, food and information. The prison break in Hasakeh too was most likely made possible by the help offered by networks of sympathetic Arab villagers opposed to Kurdish control over their areas.

In sub-Saharan Africa, ISIL affiliates fight against existing al-Qaeda affiliates, which allows them to form local political alliances. They have also garnered support from clan leaders, nomads and farmers over issues such as grazing rights.

ISIL’s continued presence in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa demonstrates that assassinations of leaders can not be seen as an effective long-term strategy in the fight against armed groups. Indeed, both in 2019 and 2021 US raids successfully eliminated ISIL’s leaders, yet did nothing to eliminate the underlying conditions that allowed the group to gain influence and support – and as a result, ISIL is still here and it is still wreaking havoc across a wide geography.

With all signals pointing to ISIL continuing to pose a real threat after the assassination of its second caliph, it’s high time our political and military leaders accept that the path to completely eliminating the group is not through tactical military operations, but long term multilateral peace and development strategies.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.