Keeping up With the Qaradashians

The killing of the ISIS leader Thursday hints at how the terror group has evolved — by returning to its roots

Keeping up With the Qaradashians
The ruins of the house in Atme, Syria, in which Islamic State group leader Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abd-al-Rahman al-Mawla died during a raid by U.S. special forces early in the morning of Feb. 3 / Abdulaziz Ketaz / AFP via Getty Images

Tucked into a 100-page document that a dissident group within the Islamic State group released in 2018 was a story about a miracle. It was a biography of an Iraqi jihadist who went from being a young man with an ambition to raise pigeons to being the leader of the world’s deadliest terror organization.

Abu Ali al-Anbari, who was killed in 2018, had ordered the release of his life’s story in order to establish his religious and tribal bona fides in the event that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, then head of the Islamic State, was killed. Anbari’s biography spoke of how his family was not Turkish, as it was widely rumored to be, but rather Iraqi and so devout that Anbari’s father even predicted his son could one day become the head of ummah, much like Baghdadi. The father made this prediction, so ran the legend, after a leaf fell from a tree into a copy of the Qu’ran the younger Anbari was reading. The leaf somehow had the word “Allah” written on it. Anbari’s father told him he had a bright future. So he did. He became the deputy of almost all the Islamic State’s leaders, and his disciples inherited the mantle of the caliphate after Baghdadi blew himself up avoiding U.S. special forces in Idlib, northwest Syria, in 2019. This faction within the Islamic State, associated with Anbari, has been one of the most extreme within the already extremist group.

But Anbari’s biography has renewed relevance in light of the U.S. raid on Feb. 3 that killed the current Islamic State leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurashi, in northern Syria.

The slain leader was a follower of Anbari and belonged to a tight-knit group within the organization since its inception. This network comes largely from the areas around the Turkmen-dominant border town of Tal Afar in northern Iraq. Because of the demography of this longtime jihadist incubator, it has often been assumed that any member of the Islamic State who hailed from Tal Afar was Turkman rather than Arab. As such, because the group emphasizes the need for its leaders to be of a specific lineage linked to Prophet Muhammad, such a Turkman person could never become head of the organization even though the Afaris have always had an outsize influence within and on the Islamic State.

Until recently, however, that influence was confined to the background. Everything changed with Qurashi, who was appointed by the Islamic State as leader despite his suspected non-Arab background. Because the Islamic State has been weakened, its options for leaders are limited and it has had to rely on a small pool of candidates it can trust, notwithstanding the inconvenience of having to prove they are of Arab background.

The next leader of the Islamic State will most likely come from this cabal of Afaris, a network locally known as the Qaradish.

The 2018 document was an early attempt to deal with this new dilemma. If Anbari was of Turkish origin, then his claim to be of the Arab tribe of Quraysh was false, and thus his claims to be a caliph were illegitimate. The Islamic State insisted he belonged to the tribe of the Prophet and that only one of those could claim to be the legitimate leader of the Muslim community, as told in Islamic traditions extremists cite.

The question about the true origins of the slain leader led the United Nations to conclude in a report that Qurashi was merely a placeholder caliph until his organization could find an Arab with the right tribal and religious qualifications. On the other hand, both the Islamic State and the tribe insisted that Qurashi was in fact Arab, even if the clan was “Turkified” in the way it integrated with the Turkmen in northern Iraq, with whom it has mingled for centuries.

In the summer of 2020, new biographical details put an end to speculations in media and policy circles about his tribal origins and shed light on the core leadership of the Islamic State.

Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abd-al-Rahman al-Mawla, the real name of the person identified by the Islamic State only as Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurashi (also known as Abdullah Qaradash and Hajji Abdullah), was born in 1976 in a village near Mosul. The village, known as al-Mahalabiyah, is dominated by the Turkmen ethnic minority in Iraq, which is why authorities in Iraq and the U.S. were convinced the group lied about the ethnic origins of its leader, an aspect they hoped they could exploit to exacerbate existing disputes within the organization, according to sources in Baghdad familiar with those discussions.

Qurashi was the second leader after Baghdadi, who was also killed in a U.S. raid in northern Syria in October 2019, to have formal religious training. He held a master’s degree in Islamic studies, and he at least defended a doctoral thesis at a college in Mosul. His father was also an imam at a mosque in Mosul, and the current leader developed a nickname as the teacher or master, for his religious knowledge. Qurashi even served as a judge in the Islamic State of Iraq (known at the time as al Qaeda in Iraq) before he was captured and jailed by the United States in southern Iraq in Camp Bucca in 2008. (The most detailed biography of Qurashi was written by Feras Kilani for New Lines, drawing on Iraqi intelligence documents and prison files containing new and exclusive details.)

More important, he was part of the new generation of Islamic State leaders who emerged organically from the Iraqi battlefield, and he tended to be discreet and elusive. Little was known about him publicly. The first leaders of the Islamic State had already been widely known before they even came to Iraq, notably the notorious Jordanian jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who formally established and led al Qaeda in Iraq in 2004. The three leaders who followed him kept a low profile without making public statements, and almost all of them were suspected by the U.S. to be fake profiles or placeholders.

Yet the U.S. caught up with Qurashi almost from day one, despite the murky details about his background early on. Iraqi intelligence leaks identified him as the possible next leader around two months before Baghdadi was killed. Almost immediately after the Islamic State announced a new leader in late 2019, reports about his identity started to circulate in Iraqi and U.S. circles. Qurashi was the only leader to have never issued an audio or video statement to his followers.

The ability of Iraqis and Americans to identify him early on and of the U.S. to kill him without the elusive leader making any public statement are significant signs for where the Islamic State is at the moment.

First, it shows how impressive the U.S. has become in tracing and eliminating leaders like Qurashi despite the scarcity of information about him. He did not need to make a public statement, from which intelligence agencies could glean much information or intercept the communications to trace the origins of the statement. All his predecessors were killed after either making a public statement or making an appearance in a public place where informants tracked him.

Sources in the same area have reported that close associates of his have been operating in northern Syria for two years. They coordinate between cells in Iraq and Syria, build businesses and run operations from there. It is a hostile environment for the Islamic State because its rivals dominate that region of northern Syria, but it is precisely the right place to hide because nobody expects the leader to be there. That the area has become a better hiding place for Iraqi leaders than Iraq itself is a further indication of the group’s troubles in Iraq. The Iraqis and Americans have become good at chasing the jihadists, and northern Syria, where neither has presence or connections, is naturally a logical place to hide its top leaders.

Second, Iraqis were able to identify him as the possible leader because the pool of candidates for the post-caliphate Islamic State was extremely narrow. This is why the group is reverting to its networks that constitute the core of its core — the nucleus of the group since its inception, namely the Turkmen or Turkified Arabs.

Before Qurashi, Anbari had been the longest-serving and highest-ranking cleric within the Islamic State. He was associated with the insurgency against Saddam Hussain in the 1990s and early 2000s. He joined forces with Zarqawi in 2004 and had a central role in mobilizing Iraqis to join the Jordanian jihadist and his new group. He even traveled to the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands to coordinate with al Qaeda’s central leadership about a new merger between them and Iraqi insurgents. This culminated in the formation of a jihadist union that he briefly headed in 2006. Aside from the time he served in American prisons in Iraq, Anbari continued to be the number two of the Islamic State in its several iterations. He was killed in 2018, and individuals associated with his cells remained close to the leadership.

Qurashi had been a trusted aide of Baghdadi before the latter was killed. With the current troubles the Islamic State has faced since the eradication of its territorial caliphate in 2018 and the killing of its caliph in 2019, the leaders it can trust are a dying breed — quite literally. The network to which both Anbari and Qurashi belonged is currently its most trusted. It’s hard to imagine the Islamic State will venture outside the “Qaradashians” for its new leader.

In practice, this means that the Islamic State is locked in a new cycle that pushed it to pick an odd choice for a leader in 2019. That cycle makes its pool of candidates for leadership narrow, limited to a small clique within one country, Iraq. Add to these internal problems a broader set of factors favoring its enemies, including the growing strength of rival groups and governments, and the weakening of the international jihadist movement writ large, and it becomes clear how the organization’s chances of recovery are currently slim. The death of its leader under these circumstances will further disorient the group and weaken its ability to focus on international terrorism. In other words, the prospects for the group do not seem as promising as suggested by much of the media commentary that followed the Islamic State’s operation two weeks ago in northern Syria, in which it attacked a prison controlled by the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces and freed some jailed leaders.

The Islamic State is coming full circle. It is this network that indigenized the group that the Jordanian jihadist formally formed in 2004 in the Iraqi landscape. The network behind it may not have been so visible to outsiders, since it was publicly led by individuals like Zarqawi and the two Baghdadis, but they were always in the background.

Before Qurashi, Anbari was the closest this faction came to taking over the Islamic State, and his biography was a preemptive attempt to justify his credentials. He was killed before Baghdadi’s demise, but his disciple Qurashi made it.

The Qaradashians once represented the unacknowledged seedbed of the Islamic State. Now they are its public face — and its future.

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