The Islamic State terrorist group known as ISIS publicly confirmed for the first time on Thursday the death of its leader in February and named the successor to lead the group.
In an audio message released Thursday and reported by the New York Times, ISIS spokesman Abu Omar al-Muhajer confirmed the death of Abu Hamza al-Qurayshi. Al-Qurayshi killed himself with explosives during a U.S. special operations raid in Syria on Feb. 3.
In addition to confirming Al-Quarayshi’s death more than a month after the fact, Al-Muhajer named Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi as the new leader of ISIS. Al-Muhajer said that the al-Qurayshi had chosen al-Qurashi (which has also alternately been spelled as al-Qurayshi) as ISIS’s new caliph. A caliph is a leader of a caliphate, or governance administered under Islamic law.
Al-Quarayshi was killed just over two years after the death of the previous ISIS caliph, Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, in a similar special forces raid in Syria in October 2019. Like al-Qurayshi, al-Baghdadi detonated explosives that killed himself and members of his family after being surrounded and trapped by U.S. special forces members.
Two Iraqi security officials told Reuters on Friday that Abu al-Hassan al-Hashemi al-Quraishi is the brother of al-Baghdadi.
The new ISIS audio recording provided few details about the organization’s new leader. Al-Muhajer may have withheld that information in an effort to protect al-Qurashi from being as easily tracked and killed like his predecessors.
The October 2019 raid on al-Baghdadi came after the ISIS caliphate collapsed in March of that year. ISIS went from openly administering over a state-like area the size of Britain in Iraq and Syria to operating as a decentralized organization. Rather than openly controlling territory, the terrorist organization now holds pockets of influence throughout Iraq and Syria.
Despite the loss of its territorial control, ISIS has demonstrated the ability to carry out attacks and spread to other regions of the world. Offshoots of the Islamic State have cropped up in a number of places, including parts of western Africa and Afghanistan. In August, a member of the Islamic State’s Afghanistan branch — known as ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K) — carried out a suicide bombing attack on the Kabul airport, killing 13 U.S. servicemembers and dozens more civilians during efforts to evacuate the country after the U.S.-backed Afghan government collapsed under Taliban pressure.
In January, days before the raid on Al-Qurayshi, ISIS fighters launched a series of attacks in Iraq and Syria, including a prison break in an area of Syria controlled by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces. The prison break resulted in a week-long battle at the prison and the surrounding area, before Kurdish forces regained control. As the New York Times reported, it is unclear how many ISIS fighters were able to escape in the prison break.
Incidents like the Kabul airport bombing and the Syrian prison break demonstrate that ISIS still has some capacity to carry out significant attacks, despite its territorial losses.