The Islamic State continues despite the death of its leader

BEIRUT — US officials hailed the death of Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi last week as yet another wound to an organization whose reach and power had already been drastically reduced. But terrorism analysts have warned that his death does not erase the group, whose members have continued to seek refuge and plan attacks around the world.

“This is another blow to an organization that just a few years ago cast a shadow over the entire region,” said Pratibha Thaker, Middle East and Africa editorial director at The Economist. Intelligence Unit. “But I think everyone is wondering deep down how important it really is to take out the leader since the organization is so decentralized.”

Al-Qurayshi blew himself up in a raid on his hideout in northwestern Syria on Thursday, US officials said.

The United States has invested great resources in tracking down leaders of terrorist organizations. US forces killed Osama bin Laden, the founder of al-Qaeda; Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who led al-Qaeda in Iraq; and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, al-Qurayshi’s predecessor as head of the Islamic State militant group.

But after such killings, the groups they sought to undermine often resurfaced in new and more powerful forms or simply replaced old heads with new ones.

Al-Qurayshi’s death has deprived the Islamic State of essential religious and military authority at a time when the group has already been driven from its territory and lost large numbers of fighters. But terrorism experts said the group has become more diffuse and decentralized, allowing it to continue.

Its fighters in Iraq recently killed 10 soldiers and an officer in a nighttime attack on an army post and beheaded a policeman on camera. In Syria, jihadists raided a prison in an attempt to free thousands of their former comrades and occupied the compound for more than a week before a US-backed Kurdish-led militia chased them out .

However, the group is only a shadow of itself.

At its height around 2015, the Islamic State controlled vast territory in Syria and Iraq and supplanted Al-Qaida as the richest and most dangerous terrorist organization in the world. The Islamic State controlled major cities, collected taxes, provided public services and built a war machine.

Its propagandists have attracted aspiring jihadists from around the world. Its operatives have led and inspired deadly attacks in the United States, Europe and elsewhere.

The loss of its last piece of territory in 2019, after 4 and a half years of war, marked a significant defeat. Now it is a caliphate in name only. And persistent attacks by the United States and its partners in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere have disrupted its funding networks.

Al-Qurayshi was named leader of the group in 2019 after al-Baghdadi also blew himself up in a US special forces raid on his hideout in northwest Syria.

After al-Qurayshi took control of the group, the United States put a bounty of up to $10 million on his head and said he “helped lead and justify the kidnapping, massacre and trafficking in members of minority Yazidi religious groups” in Iraq and overseeing “the group’s global operations.”

As it searches for a replacement, the militant group no longer has a large pool to draw from because years of concerted counterterrorism operations by the United States and its partners have killed much of the group’s inner circle, said said Hassan Hassan, an expert on the Islamic State, writing Thursday in the online magazine New Lines.

“Leaders he can trust are a dying breed – literally,” Hassan wrote.

This leadership vacuum, the waning attractiveness of international jihadism, and the growing strength of enemy governments and competing militant groups could hamper the group’s ability to rebound, he wrote. “The death of its leader under these circumstances will further disorient the group and weaken its ability to focus on international terrorism.”

But terrorism analysts are reluctant to write off the group, noting it was seen as a depleted force just a few years before it came back in force and consolidated its control over entire cities in Syria and Iraq in 2014.

The group has long found it easier to operate in failed states, conflict zones and poorly governed places, and its fighters still have many such territories to choose from, including in Afghanistan and some parts of Africa.

“What we have seen in the jihadist movement as a whole over the past two decades is that it is very pragmatic in pursuing its goals,” said Shiraz Maher, author of a book on the history of the global jihadist movement. “Their next step is to continue to hold on and bide their time and react to realities as they unfold.”

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