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Abu Hudhayfa al-Ansari, the New Islamic State Spokesman, Introduces Yet Another New “Caliph”
The first speech from the new spokesman of the Islamic State (IS), Abu Hudhayfa al-Ansari, was released by Al-Furqan Media on 3 August. The half-hour statement is entitled, “So, Rejoice in the Bargain You have Contracted”.1
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SUMMARY AND CONTEXT
Abu Hudhayfa confirmed that, as had been suspected for some time,2 IS’s “caliph”, Abu al-Husayn al-Husayni al-Qurayshi, is dead, having been killed in north-western Syria.
The new caliph is Abu Hafs al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi.
IS has had five caliphs since the caliphate was declared in June 2014:
Amir Muhammad al-Mawla (Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi): October 2019 – February 2022
Abu al-Hassan al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi: March 2022 – November 2022
Abu al-Husayn: November 2022 – April 2023
Abu Hafs: August 2023 – Present
The evident pattern is towards an increasingly quick turnover: Al-Badri lasted more than five years and Al-Mawla a little over two years, while Abu al-Hassan was in post for just eight months and Abu al-Husayn survived a mere five months. It is not without significance that IS has taken four months to clarify the leadership situation, something that usually takes place within days.
No caliph since Al-Badri has made a speech, another reflection of IS’s difficulties. Al-Badri did not make his first “proper” speech until July 2012, twenty-seven months after he took office, which was notable at the time because the leader from 2006 to 2010, Hamid al-Zawi (Abu Umar al-Baghdadi), had been front-and-centre as the voice of the Islamic State. Al-Badri’s initial absence from the media was explained by IS itself as a necessary security measure while the group was rebuilding. The then-spokesman, Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani), was IS’s public “face” until IS was deep into its recovery, gaining momentum across Iraq and extending into Syria. The return of caliphal speeches would be an indicator that IS is, or believes itself to be, on the upswing.
Of minor interest, Abu Hudhayfa mentions in passing the killing of Abu al-Hassan, but there is no acknowledgement of the controversy surrounding Abu al-Hassan’s demise or any attempt to grapple with the various claims about what happened last year—unsurprisingly, since IS has in effect dismissed all these claims as conspiracy theories, and they are probably correct.
Often the caliph and spokesman fall together, and such was the case here, hence Abu Hudhayfa’s ascension: Abu Hudhayfa reveals that his predecessor as spokesman, Abu Umar al-Muhajir, was captured shortly after Abu al-Husayn was eliminated.
The five IS spokesmen in the caliphate era are:
Falaha, who made his first speech as spokesman in August 2011, was IS’s public advocate during the split with Al-Qaeda in 2013-14 and became globally infamous for his September 2014 call for terrorist attacks anywhere and everywhere. Falaha was killed in August 2016.
Abu Hassan al-Muhajir served from December 2016 until falling days after Al-Badri was killed in October 2019.
Abu Hamza al-Qurayshi was appointed in October 2019 and made his last speech a year later. There are claims Abu Hamza was killed in late 2021, and he certainly is dead, but when and how—and what, if any, link his death has to Al-Mawla’s—remains rather mysterious.
Abu Umar al-Muhajir announced the beginning of his tenure in March 2022 and now sits in prison, rounded up in the days after Abu al-Husayn was killed at the end of April 2023.
Abu Hudhayfa is still within the first (formal) month on the job.
Falaha’s name became known in 2014, while he was still in-post, around the time a biography of him got posted online by an IS cleric, and Abu Hassan al-Muhajir’s identity has since become clear,3 but the real names of the most recent three IS spokesmen remain hidden.
At this stage, essentially nothing is known of Abu Hudhayfa. It has been suggested that Abu Hudhayfa sounds Iraqi, and his kunya suggests the same thing: “ansar”, literally meaning “partisan”, indicates a local fighter, and for IS local tends to mean from Iraq, though it could possibly mean Syria, where Abu Hudhayfa is probably based.
Abu Hudhayfa begins with praise for God and those who lead men into battles hoping to be killed for the sake of their Lord. This is the deal the Almighty has made with the believers, Abu Hudhayfa says: “they sell themselves to Him … and He grants them Paradise”. It is to collect on this contract that “caravans of martyrs” have flocked to God, as has been “made clear in His book”, i.e. the Qur’an.
Abu Hudhayfa then quotes the Qur’anic verse (9:111) that gives the speech its title:4
Surely, God has purchased from the believers their lives and their properties, and in return paradise will be theirs: they will fight in the cause of God, kill, and be killed. Such is the promise, truly binding upon Him [set down] in the Torah and the Gospel and the Qur'an. And who is more faithful to His covenant than Allah? So, rejoice in the bargain you have contracted with Him, for that is the supreme achievement.5
Imam Al-Qurtubi is brought in as an authority on the same theme.
“The departed emirs of the Islamic State and its noble leaders continue racing to fulfil this covenant, and rushing to carry out the terms of this contract”, Abu Hudhayfa says. “Among these loyal ones was the last Caliph of the Muslims, the Mujahid Shaykh: Abu al-Husayn al-Husayni al-Qurayshi, may God accept him among the martyrs”, the phrase that confirms IS’s admission he is dead. Condolences are offered to Muslims and IS’s troops for “the killing of the Commander of the Faithful”,6 who is said to have remained “steadfast on the path of those who preceded him, giving his life to his Lord, supporting his deen (faith)”, and so on.
Abu Hudhayfa went on: “When he [Abu al-Husayn] took up the raya (banner) as caliph to his predecessor, Abu al-Hassan, it was in difficult circumstances and [amid] tribulations”, but Abu al-Husayn is praised for doing his duty, namely warring with unbelievers and upholding tawhid (monotheism), in a manner that IS’s leadership feels would please God.
“As for the details around the death of the shaykh, may God accept him, we will reveal them today”, exposing the false story that Turkey has pushed through the media, says Abu Hudhayfa:
The shaykh [Abu al-Husayn], may God have mercy on him, was killed in a direct confrontation with the Committee of Apostasy and Spies [i.e., the Al-Qaeda derived Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)],7 the lackeys of the Turkish intelligence, in one of the towns of Idlib countryside. After they tried to capture him while he was on duty, he fought them with his weapon until he succumbed to his wounds. The crimes of the spies for the [Turkish] mukhabarat did not stop there.8 They lurked nearby to discover the Shaykh Speaker: Abu Umar al-Muhajir with some of his brothers was … taken prisoner.
What was worse, Abu Hudhayfa explains, is that HTS not only did this as an “offering of loyalty and allegiance” to Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who rules by man-made laws rather than the shari’a, but HTS then gave Abu al-Husayn’s body to the Turks specifically to try to help Erdogan’s re-election campaign. Thus, says Abu Hudhayfa, HTS ingratiated itself to an idolatrous ruler “with the blood of the believers and participated in the blasphemous elections. In this way, they are worse disbelievers than [Turkish] voters and candidates, heaping crime upon crime and disbelief upon disbelief.” Erdogan tried to take advantage of this by falsely announcing that IS’s caliph had been killed by Turkish intelligence, “but nobody believed him”, says Abu Hudhayfa, despite the Turkish media campaign: “The whole world awaited the certainty of news from Al-Furqan.”
Erdogan announced on 30 April that Abu al-Husayn had been killed “in an operation carried out yesterday by the MIT in Syria”. (MIT is Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization.) AFP reporters in northern Syria said that the 29 April raid was conducted by “Turkish intelligence agents and local military police, backed by Turkey”, and had taken place in Jindires, a town located about six miles from Turkey’s border in Syria’s Efrin province.
Erdogan’s claim was inherently plausible—large numbers of senior IS officials have been killed in this area—but Abu Hudhayfa was correct that few believed the Turkish ruler without confirmation from IS, an implicit judgment on the relative credibility of the two parties that favours IS. This is not unreasonable. Turkey’s government and media, most of which is State-controlled, are in general notoriously unreliable, addled with conspiracy theories and misinformation. And there is the specific problem when it comes to IS’s leadership. Turkey claimed in September 2022 to have arrested the then-caliph, Abu al-Hassan. Two months later, IS announced Abu al-Hassan’s death, and external evidence mounted up essentially vindicating IS. Abu al-Hassan, whose real name was possibly Nur Karim al-Matni and who was using the kunya “Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Iraqi”, was killed in Deraa, in southern Syria, in mid-October 2022. So, when U.S. officials began leaking their doubts about the Turkish story to the press in the spring, there was a collective sense of “here we go again”.
That Erdogan was telling the truth about the timing of the caliph’s demise has resolved little else. There are remaining questions over the details. It is clear that IS is technically wrong in saying Abu al-Husayn was killed in Idlib, albeit Jindires is right on the (unmarked) provincial border, and Ankara’s claim that Abu al-Husayn killed himself by detonating a suicide vest is probably true, counter to the imputation in Abu Hudhayfa’s speech that the caliph was killed by others. What is murkier is exactly who was involved in the raid that killed Abu al-Husayn. Abu Hudhayfa’s claim is that Abu al-Husayn was killed in a skirmish with HTS, with Turkey brought into the picture after the fact, and the Turkish claim is that the raid was theirs.
The argument against IS’s claim that HTS killed Abu al-Husayn relies on the fact HTS’s presence in Jindires is slight, and the clear incentive IS has to tell the story it has, given that IS’s primary ideological struggle is with other Islamists and portraying HTS as a puppet of the (still, for now) secular Turkish Republic is an easy short-cut to discrediting HTS in the jihadist world. In support of IS’s claim is the fact that HTS’s configuration in northwestern Syria does not matter very much: there is no obvious reason why one of the HTS security units that have proven quite skilful in cracking down on IS cells could not have carried out the raid—the unit need not have been based in the town, nor stay there afterwards—and Turkey really does have a relationship with HTS, part of which involves a joint hostility to IS.
In many ways, HTS (and Turkey) benefit from IS’s narrative. If true, it would burnish HTS’s status as a potential “counter-terrorism partner”,9 increasing the chances of a HAMAS-style normalisation of HTS’s jihadist emirate in northern Syria, which the group itself wants for obvious reasons and which Turkey also wants, viewing it as the least-bad alternative. This kind of tacit normalisation can occur without removing HTS from the various terrorism blacklists, including Turkey’s, but a push for such a removal might well occur at some point.
The alternative is that Turkey did lead the raid and worked through the “Syrian National Army” (SNA), the collection of militias controlled by MIT that includes the remnants of the Syrian rebellion. One complication here is that an MIT-led raid using SNA military police does not exclude a role for HTS: northwest Syria is broadly under Turkish authority and in practice there is no sharp operational distinction between HTS and the SNA. Omitting HTS from the story of Abu al-Husayn’s death is advantageous for Turkey because it avoids the messy legal and political questions about working with a jihadist group,10 and it polishes the image of the SNA, a shambolic force of bandits that fights itself when it isn’t predating on the local population.11
Abu Hudhayfa continues, saying IS is “here … today, revealing what happened and not concealing it, as there is nothing reprehensible or deficient in it, for what happened to our shaykhs and our emirs is exactly what happened in the best of centuries to the flower of the Muslims”. It is written in the Qur’an, Abu Hudhayfa says, that the unbelievers will make war on the believers, targeting their leaders in the way IS has suffered, but this is all ephemera in the broad direction of history that proceeds, according to God’s design, towards the triumph of Islam. All Muslims need in the meantime is have faith and continue on the blessed path of jihad, says the IS spokesman, since the individuals’ path is predestined by God—and “what the Almighty chooses for us is better than what we choose for ourselves”.
The leaders and soldiers of the Islamic State have stuck to God’s path, says Abu Hudhayfa, enduring with contentment the hardships and the enmity of the betrayers who have fallen off this path. The IS spokesman then goes through the achievements, as he sees them, of IS’s leaders:
The State of Islam, past and present, continues to sacrifice for Islam and raise up its minaret with the blood of its glorious leaders. The venerable Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed, and the Islamic State of Iraq was established on his remains under the leadership of the Commander of the Faithful, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, and his War Minister, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, until they were killed together in what the enemy thought was a knockout blow. God disappointed them and the first Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, carried the banner in Iraq and delivered it to Syria to support and help the Muslims. God provided the assistance and prepared the way for him, and he declared a caliphate upon the prophetic methodology.
The forces of evil united against Abu Bakr, says Abu Hudhayfa, but he fought on through a long and bitter war until he defiantly blew himself up in America’s face.
They said, “This is the downfall of their state and caliphate”, but the second caliph, Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi, arose, picked up the banner and the caliphate was safe. He escalated the war and astonished the warriors with the epic of Ghwayran, then surrendered his soul to its master in another epic that he and his family fought against the soldiers of the Cross.
Then the third caliph, Abu al-Hassan, carried the banner after him. He fought and led the battles in the south, renewing the [flow of bodies of] Nusayris and their agents to funeral homes, and made their hearts bleed.
When the banner reached the fourth caliph, Abu al-Husayn, he had to carry it at a difficult time, but he did not deviate from the path. He was patient and steadfast until he was killed at the hands of the taghut’s slaves. … He preferred death over this world.
Thus completes the quartet of sacrifice faithfulness from the emirs and caliphs, may God accept them as martyrs.
Abu Hudhayfa is adamant that nothing unusual in the history of Islam occurred in the perishing of IS’s caliphs: they were appointed by legitimate processes, served dutifully, and were given death when God determined their oaths had been fulfilled.
An important part of the speech is next, Abu Hudhayfa arguing that the succession after Abu al-Husayn occurred smoothly and legitimately:
As soon as the news of the Shaykh Caliph’s death reached the Majlis al-Shura of the Islamic State, the people who loose and bind were gathered. They deliberated, consulted, and agreed upon the fearless Mujahid Shaykh Abu Hafs al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi—may God Almighty protect him—as Commander of the Faithful and Caliph of the Muslims.12
Abu Hudhayfa goes on to remind those who have given their bay’a (oath of allegiance) to IS’s leader that Islam forbids breaking such oaths and adumbrates the penalties incurred for those who displease God through disobedience. Abu Hudhayfa goes on in this vein for some time, quoting various authorities about a Muslim’s duty to their Imam, and briefly refutes some of the arguments that deny IS’s legitimacy as a caliphal enterprise, before getting to his point by calling for the wilayats to publicly renew their oaths, not least because it will infuriate the jihadists’ enemies. The fourth bay’at campaign is well-underway.
“Your State, may God honour it, has gone through various phases since its inception”, says Abu Hudhayfa, the same cycle as has been seen through Muslim history: “fluctuating between blessing and misfortune, between prosperity and scarcity, but the bay’a in Islam was given in hardship and in ease, in good times and in bad.”
Abu Hudhayfa concludes by addressing four audiences:
First, IS prisoners. These “pious, hidden soldiers”, male and female, are assured they have not been forgotten, that their patience is recognised as a form of jihad, and they are encouraged not to weaken in their resolve, especially since they have the “most effective weapon” (faith) readily at hand.
Second, HTS. The Hay’at is said to have reached a level of degradation and slavery with no precedent, to have become the “spying eyes” and “treacherous hands” among the Muslims for the enemies of the faith, which is why the “Crusaders” have preserved the group. IS warns HTS that their decision to sell the hereafter for gains in this world is a false bargain—a time will come when HTS is no longer useful to those it is currently helping, and HTS will then be “consigned to the dustbin of history”: “God willing, it will be at the hands of the believers” (i.e., IS).
Third, America. The coronavirus plague is said to be God’s judgment (somewhat indiscriminate) judgment on America, and IS credits itself with depleting the U.S. military so that it is struggling to supply Ukraine at the present time. The rest is the usual threats to fight the Americans until the end of time, or until they submit to Islam; whichever comes first.
Fourth, IS’s troops around the world. Iraq, Syria, Khorasan (Afghanistan-Pakistan), Africa, and the Sahel are namechecked, and told to hold to their ideology and continue their operations against IS’s enemies. There is also a relatively rare mention of Palestine: IS’s forces there are encouraged to evict the Jews and bring the area under the shari’a.
The title, which can also be translated as, “So, Rejoice In Your Transaction Which You Have Contracted” or “Rejoice in the Deal You Have Concluded” or “So, Be Glad of the Bargain You Have Made”, is drawn from the ninth sura of the Qur’an, Al-Tawba (The Repentance), 9:111 to be exact.
Credible leaks from within the Islamic State around 10 July made it nearly certain that Abu al-Husayn was dead, and had been for some months.
“Mr. Orange” discovered a biography of Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, which confirms the suspicion that Abu Hassan was a Saudi national and documents his name as Hassan al-Utaybi. The biography describes Al-Utaybi as religiously learned, a graduate in shari’a from Imam Mohammad Ibn Saud Islamic University, who got involved with the jihadist rebellion inside the Kingdom in the early 2000s and fled in early 2004 during the State’s crackdown.
Most of the jihadist cadres pushed out of Saudi Arabia at this time gathered in Yemen and soon became Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but Al-Utaybi moved to Iraq, joining the Islamic State movement, still led at that time by its founder, Ahmad al-Khalayleh (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi), and known as Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad. Later in the year, Zarqawi would swear allegiance to Usama bin Laden and his group became for a couple of years Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQM). Al-Utaybi fought in both battles in Fallujah, in April-May and November 2004. In the second battle of Fallujah, Al-Utaybi was in a unit under IS’s iconic leader in the city, Umar Hadid.
Al-Utaybi moved into propaganda work after this, climbing to a senior position by the time he went to Syria around 2013 with Wael al-Ta’i (Abu Muhammad al-Furqan), the head of the media department from 2009 until he was killed about a week after Falaha in 2016. Al-Utaybi, evidently safe from whatever the breach in the media department was that led to these killings, was announced as Falaha’s replacement two months later. (One of the other very senior people around Al-Ta’i, Ahmad Abousamra (Abu Sulayman al-Shami), an American, could perhaps have filled the spokesman role, but he was set on “martyrdom” and achieved it in January 2017.)
The biography says that during Al-Utaybi’s time as spokesman he acted with firm loyalty to Caliph Ibrahim against the Hazimi “extremists”, being sent at times—probably because of his training in Islamic law—to try to reason with them, and Al-Utaybi appeared alongside the caliph during his final appearance.
“Paradise” is from “Jannah”, which literally means “the Garden”. The word translated as “contracted” is “bay’at”, i.e., an oath or pledge of allegiance. “Supreme achievement” can also be translated as “magnificent triumph” or “great success”.
As Gabriel Said Reynolds points out in his 2018 book, The Qur’an and the Bible (pp. 321-22), the point of the verse—that paradise is given as payment to those who give their lives in holy war (jihad)—is reiterated many times in the Qur’an, usually alongside the teaching that part of the reward is the forgiveness of sins. Reynolds notes that what is strange about this ayah is the claim that this deal or covenant was set down in the “Tawrah” (Torah or Pentateuch: what Christians call the Old Testament), since this has no mention of heaven, and in the four Gospels, since they have no mention of holy war.
Part of the explanation is that the passage is not referring to the Gospels of the New Testament: the word being translated, “Al-Injeel”, which appears a dozen times in the Qur’an, means “the Gospel”, singular. Thus, while “Al-Injeel” is an obvious reference to Christian Scripture, what exactly the Qur’an imagines that to be is very difficult to pin down. The problem is two-fold.
First, assuming the Qur’an in some form was in existence in the seventh century (and does not originate 150 or 200 years later), there is no way to get back to what the authors meant: the history of the ecumenical monotheistic Ishmaelite movement that captured the Christian Roman provinces in the Near East, Iran, and North Africa has been buried, and a lot of Qur’anic exegesis after Islam crystallises into a separate creed in the Abbasid period is Muslim scholars trying to excavate the original meaning of terms and allusions that make no sense to them—and in the process creating a Tradition that moved them even further away from the original meaning. (The problem is slightly different and no easier if the late origins theory of the Qur’an is correct.)
Second, the process of forging Islam as we know it now resulted in a theological understanding of the two predecessor Biblical monotheisms as failed versions of itself, which imposed ideological commitments on Muslim scholars that obscured the issue even further. In the Muslim perception, the Hebrew Prophets and Jesus (Isa) are actually Muslim Prophets, and three of them were given authentic revelations: Moses (Musa) was given the Torah, King David (Dawud) was given the Zabur (Psalms), and Jesus was given the Injeel. These revelations were sent down from Umm al-Kitab (the Mother of the Book), a sort of heavenly master text from which the Qur’an is also drawn, but Jews and Christians proved unworthy custodians and corrupted the texts, hence the need for a final revelation with Muhammad to correct things. (This reading of history backwards is how Muslims explain the self-evident fact that the Qur’an contains some of the same stories as the Torah and the Bible with discrepancies over names and other details: according to this view, the Torah and Bible versions initially said what the Qur’an says now, but they have been adulterated.)
In short, “Al-Injeel” is understood by Muslims, at the present time, as a reference to the “true” scripture that God gave to Jesus, but what the term meant to the people who wrote the Qur’an is unknown and probably unknowable.
The phrase is “Emir al-Mu’mineen”, which can also be translated as “Prince of the Believers”.
The phrase used is Hay’at al-Ridda wal-Umala (هيئة الردة والعمالة), which could also be translated as “Committee of Apostasy and Agents”.
The word for “spies” used here is “jawasis”.
It might seem like Alice in Wonderland thinking that an Al-Qaeda derivative would be considered a “counter-terrorism partner”, but if an entity gets itself labelled “anti-ISIS” there is no end to the possibilities: the Taliban—attached to Al-Qaeda “Central”—has been considered by some as worthy of Western support, since it combats the Islamic State in Afghanistan, while the narco-terrorist PKK and the terrorist regime in Iran have both received actual, extensive Western military assistance for their expansionist ideological projects under the banner of their claim to be enemies of the Islamic State.
Turkey has been dogged for years by accusations it supports jihadists in Syria, specifically the Islamic State. Ankara is, therefore, eager to avoid any appearance of reinforcing that narrative—which is awkward given the concrete, visible policy towards HTS.
Last week, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned several of the most prominent SNA leaders for gross human rights abuses, including in effect ethnic cleansing, theft of property, abduction, torture, and personal involvement in rape.
“Majlis al-Shura”, often given as “Shura Council”, translates as “Consultation Council”. “The people who loose and bind” is a translation of “ahl al-hall wal-aqd”, a reference to the legal-political elite that in the traditional caliphate chose the successor. In this context, it means IS’s religious and other executive-body leaders. “Fearless” is a translation of “miqdam”; bold would work, too.