On November 30, the Islamic State (IS) announced that its “caliph,” Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi (Abu al-Hassan), was killed and another leader, Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Qureshi (Abu al-Hussein), was the new caliph (alarabiya.net, November 30). This was the second time in only one year that an IS caliph was killed, with both Abu al-Hassan and his own predecessor, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi (a.k.a. Haji Abdullah Qardash or Abu Ibrahim), being the two successors of the “original” IS caliph, Abubakar al-Baghdadi, who was killed in a U.S. special forces operation in northwestern Syria in October 2019. Like al-Baghdadi, Abu Ibrahim was killed in a U.S. raid in February in Idlib province in northwestern Syria (aljazeera.net, February 3).
The announcement of IS’s fourth caliph was, however, ambiguous even by IS standards. Little information or indication exists about the true identity of both the most recently killed caliph and his successor, Abu al-Hussein. It was always the case that the new IS caliphs’ identities were not fully clear upon their assuming the role, but by the time each one of them was killed, there had been at least basic knowledge of their identity. Now, the new caliph is wholly unknown, but this does not mean he lacks resonance among IS supporters in the Middle East or further abroad.
While losing leaders with such frequency is damaging to IS, by maintaining the significant position of the caliph, the group reminds its members, especially in areas where offshoots are under less pressure than the “core” in Iraq and Syria, that IS still exists in its heartland.
CENTCOM’s Strange Statement
The identity of the newly deceased caliph, Abu al-Hassan, became even more mired in mystery when U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which operates in the Middle East, confirmed his killing. In a short statement, CENTCOM revealed that he was not killed by the U.S., but rather by anti-government Syrian rebels and, more interestingly, in Deraa province in southern Syria rather than in IS’s former stronghold in northeastern Syria. That former IS stronghold, which is now under the control of U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, is where the last two IS caliphs, al-Baghdadi and Abu Ibrahim, were killed in U.S. behind-the-lines operations (syria.tv, December 1).
The location of the killing and the fact that he was the first IS caliph who was killed in an operation without U.S. involvement indicates a new chapter in the conflict with IS. Indeed, the leader of any group is obviously an important position, but in IS’s case the symbolism of “the caliph” is vital for the group’s very existence. After al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate with himself as caliph in 2014, IS has portrayed itself as restarting the Islamic empire that existed from Islam’s inception until shortly after the end of the Ottoman Empire (aljazeera.net, June 30, 2014). Thus, IS had no choice but to name another mysterious successor, which has become Abu al-Hussein.
Under its new caliph, confronting the IS threat remains a priority for U.S. troops and is at the center of the U.S. military strategy in the Middle East. Other threats like Iran and Iranian-backed Shia militias in practice still come second to IS as far as U.S. military strategy in the Middle East is concerned. However, the war against IS has been continuing in a new phase ever since the group lost the territory it controlled in Syria and Iraq in 2019 (futureuae.com, February 19, 2019). In the first phase—and even during the Iraq War when the U.S. was combatting IS’s predecessor groups like al-Qaeda in Iraq—the jihadists were more open and their movements were possible to detect.
Conversely, in the phase since al-Baghdadi’s death in 2019, IS has been increasingly operating as a quasi-underground organization, although IS cannot appear to be completely underground because it has never abandoned its claim of being a territory-holding caliphate and a state. The IS claim of sovereignty, therefore, depends on vulnerabilities of the governments in Iraq and Syria, as well as IS’s maintenance of its ostensibly territorial presence through violence. The U.S. military’s counter-IS efforts do not seem to be developing significant intelligence improvements to deal with the current situation of IS being quasi-underground. Both U.S. operations to kill al-Baghdadi and Abu Ibrahim saw several parties claiming credit for supporting the U.S. Not all such claims were accurate, but some local intelligence assistance facilitated the U.S. operations. Moreover, the two U.S. operations occurred in areas controlled by Hay’at Tahreer al-Sham (HTS), which is led by Abu Muhammad al-Julani, as well as Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, although there was no indication that either of them specifically cooperated with the U.S. forces (arabi21.com, February 4).
Russians in Deraa and the Caliph’s Demise
Syria is now divided into several regions with each one having a different governing authority. IS does not control any areas anymore, but it is operating across and between these regions (aa.com.tr, February 1). Russia has been historically the main international backer of the Syrian government led by Bashar al-Assad, with military involvement in the country’s civil war since 2015 (raialyoum.com, February 28). The Russians also matched their military involvement with a distinct political strategy to negotiate settlements to the conflict at the local level, and Deraa was the primary showcase of that strategy. The Russian military mediated peace agreements between the regime and local rebel groups. Those settlements involved amnesties from the Syrian government and allowed some rebels to migrate with their families into rebel-controlled Idlib. In return, those rebel groups ceased their attacks on Syrian government forces.
The Russian strategy, however, went even further to the extent of its military establishing its own direct relations with the local community in Deraa. Checkpoints and liaison centers were installed and, more significantly, Russia sponsored the creation of the Eighth Brigade (EB), which is a local militia with an official affiliation to al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Army’s Fifth Corps (trtarabi.com, December 8). The Russian strategy was successful to a certain degree in reducing the violence and supporting the regime’s control in Deraa, but Russia did not seem to manage the complete normalization of Deraa’s security situation. Rather, the fighting resumed in some parts of the province, which also increasingly became a center for the illegal narcotics trade across the border with neighboring Jordan (Terrorism Monitor, July 29).
More recently, Russia’s war in Ukraine has strained Russian resources. Russia, therefore, started to withdraw its forces from Deraa in recent months. It has also pushed back against the withdrawal narrative by conducting joint patrols for publicity reasons. Ahmed al-Ouda, the EB commander who left Deraa last year to live in Jordan, also was invited to Russia and subsequently returned to Deraa to provide continuity to the military effort (shaam.org, September 3).
Nevertheless, the Russian strategy is being heavily tested and other parties have been showing an increasing presence in Deraa. In addition to the Syrian government, for example, there are Iranian-backed Shia militias and IS cells. Deraa is strategic for all sides of the conflict in Syria, hosting local tribes with historic connections to their kin across the border in northern Jordan, and being adjacent to the Golan Heights to its west. Deraa was also the first province to rebel against al-Assad in early 2011. However, like what happened in most provinces, the protests were met by the Syrian government’s heavy-handed repression and an array of rebel groups were established and went to war against the government and then each other (noonpost.com, August 3, 2021).
Among those rebel group to emerge in Deraa was the Khalid Ibn al-Waleed Army (KWA), which later declared allegiance to IS. Al-Assad was shocked to see that Deraa became the first area to rebel against his rule because the membership of ruling Ba’ath party in Deraa was historically the highest in all of Syria, and the government was also on good terms with the local tribes in Deraa, historically speaking. However, since the Russian-mediated settlements took place in 2018, the Syrian government started to draw on old loyalties to consolidate control. Thus, when the fighting resumed between mainstream Sunni rebels and the government after the Russian-mediated settlements, the rebels accused the government of resorting to a perilous, but not new, maneuver of releasing jihadists from prisons in order to incite intra-rebel fighting and weaken all anti-government actors (alsouria.net, February 5, 2019). A contingent of jihadists from KWA and IS were accordingly released from prison and exacerbated fighting between jihadists and the other rebel groups, who all were against al-Assad but yet fighting and weakening each other. The killing of the IS caliph occurred in the context of this most recent wave of intra-rebel fighting and, therefore, resulted from a combination of the Russian-mediated settlements and al-Assad’s releasing jihadists from prison to foment rebel infighting.
The rebel infighting in Deraa had a significant tribal dimension. Key members of KWA and IS are from the Masalma tribe while several other rebels are from the Aba Zeed tribe. The tribes’ tendency to protect their members even when sometimes not approving of their actions and affiliations remains a key dynamic in the fighting in Deraa. Al-Assad has shown since 2011 that his government lacks willingness to fight the jihadists head-on and has been willing to resort to vicious tactics to crush other rebel groups. The killing of the IS caliph, Abu al-Hassan, in Deraa–and the fact that it is the only area in Syria where IS is still able to openly fight, demonstrates the importance of the province in any overall counter-IS strategy.
In addition, the fact that this was the first time that an IS caliph was killed by a non-U.S. force was not the result of a careful U.S strategy, but was likely accidental. The killing of the caliph was nevertheless hailed by U.S. officials, even though it indicated a possible issue with U.S. intelligence. There was no sign of any U.S. involvement in the killing and the timing of the CENTCOM statement to confirm the killing was unusual as well. It occurred weeks after the killing and only hours after IS itself announced the death and the installation of a new caliph. In contrast, the killing of the previous IS caliphs in northwestern Syria revealed U.S. effectiveness in reaching deep into a hostile area.
The killing of IS’s caliph and the appointment of a new caliph also shows the paradox of IS weakness and resilience. The group has failed to protect its caliphs not only from the superior U.S. military but now also against local rebels who do not employ sophisticated military tactics and in an area where IS has some tribal connections. Nevertheless, IS still maintains a presence, albeit relatively small, in its core region in the Middle East and, more significantly, it still preserves the position of the caliph to inspire its affiliates operating under less pressure in other parts of the world from Africa to Afghanistan.