Et was a timely counterstrike. The “Islamic State” (IS) had just launched a spectacular large-scale attack on a prison, turning the Syrian city of Hassakeh into a battlefield for days, on which the American military also intervened. The days of chaos and violence in north-eastern Syria have been a clear sign that IS has been able to grow underground in recent years. But the psychological success of IS has now fizzled out. On Thursday, US President Joe Biden reported that ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi had been “taken off the battlefield” in north-western Syria.
Not much is known about the man. According to the UN Security Council and secret service reports, it is a Turkmen born in 1976 in Iraq from the town of Tell Afar. “Caliph Ibrahim” comes from the founding generation of the IS. He was an adjutant to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the first IS “caliph”, and is said to have been chosen by himself as his successor. He worked in the shadows, but according to UN experts he should have played a role in the revival of the terrorist organization. The IS, which would have liked to exploit Hassakeh’s attack a bit more, is now busy determining a successor.
Reports of the nighttime special forces operation released Thursday from local sources and the US government are reminiscent of those of the action that led to Baghdadi’s death in October 2019. It starts with the scene: In both cases it was the north-west Syrian province of Idlib. According to the reports, around two dozen elite soldiers flew to the scene on Thursday night – with fighter jets, attack helicopters and armed drones as aerial backup. The access action is said to have lasted several hours, shots of firefights were distributed. According to the information, there were no casualties on the American side. A helicopter had to be destroyed because it was no longer airworthy.
women and children among the dead
The Syrian civil defense, which later recovered bodies from the destroyed shelter, reported 13 dead on Thursday afternoon, including women and children. According to a US official, al-Quraishi blew himself up, like Baghdadi, when commandos stormed his shelter. It is possible that the victims were killed by the explosion with which the jihadist leader evaded arrest.
Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Quraishi was hiding in a simple dwelling: three stories, exposed exterior walls, lined with olive trees, common for the area. The fact that an IS leader is holed up in Idlib seems rather unusual, because the province is dominated by Islamist competition. After Baghdadi’s death, propaganda by frustrated IS supporters portrayed Idlib as an enemy country ruled by renegades. The caliph, it was said, would have preferred to hide in the Iraqi or eastern Syrian desert.
His successor also chose Idlib. The province is dominated by the radical Islamist alliance Hayat Tahrir al Sham, whose predecessor organization fought under the banner of al-Qaeda. Their leader, Abu Muhammad al-Golani, now likes to present himself as a statesman, appearing at ceremonial openings of infrastructure projects. But there are several scattered areas in Idlib that escape the heavy hand of Golani. Atmeh, who now led the seizure operation against Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Quraishi, has had a distinguished career. In the course of the war, not only many internally displaced persons moved here. The town near the Turkish border has transformed from a sleepy smuggler’s town into a booming stronghold of the jihadist international. “That was the contact point for foreign fighters,” says a Syrian observer. “And they stocked up on real estate there.”