Islamic State Admits the Old Caliph is Dead, Appoints A New One
The Islamic State (IS) released a twelve-minute audio statement on 10 March, which finally officially acknowledged the killing of the “caliph” in a 3 February raid by American forces in Syria, and announced the appointment of his successor, named as Abu al-Hassan al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi. Interestingly, this statement, entitled, “Some Have Fulfilled Their Obligations [by Martyrdom]”, was delivered by the new spokesman, Abu Umar al-Muhajir, meaning that the previous spokesman met his end at some point over the last five weeks, a fact that had not been reported anywhere.
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OUT WITH THE OLD
In the month since Amir Muhammad al-Mawla (Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi), the IS caliph from October 2019 to February 2022, was killed, while IS remained officially silent, some of its supporters accused the U.S. and Western media of lying. Meanwhile, there has been some expansion on the known details of the operation that killed Al-Mawla, particularly the role the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) played in leading the Americans to him.
Al-Mawla’s last act—potentially the thing that determined the timing of the operation to kill him—was orchestrating the massive assault on Al-Sinaa prison in the Ghwayran area of Hasaka city that lasted ten days in late January 2021 and freed hundreds of IS jihadists, including several senior leaders. This renewed Operation BREAKING THE WALLS is celebrated by Abu Umar as a “heroic” deed and Al-Mawla’s “most honourable achievement”. In his peroration, Abu Umar returns to the importance of prison breaks, telling IS loyalists that among the commands in Al-Mawla’s will was to “be careful to free your captives”.
Writing about Al-Mawla’s death last month, I speculated: “it is possible that there are further IS officials to fall: the IS spokesman, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, was killed [in October 2019] hours after [the last caliph, Ibrahim Al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi)], clearly brought down by the same breach of security that had undone the caliph.” It now looks likely that by the time I wrote that, Al-Mawla’s spokesman, Abu Hamza al-Qurayshi, who had delivered four speeches, had already been killed.
In Abu Umar’s speech—which was printed in place of the main editorial in the 329th edition of IS’s newsletter, Al-Naba, released on the same day—he says:
[T]he caliph, the mujahid, the worker, the worshiper, the Commander of the Faithful, Shaykh Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi, and the official spokesman for the Islamic State, the immigrant Shaykh Abu Hamza al-Qurayshi—may God accept them both—…were killed in recent days[.]
No further details are given in Abu Umar’s speech, so it is impossible to be sure, but one reading of what he says is that the “ISIS lieutenant” the Pentagon said was killed alongside Al-Mawla was Abu Hamza. There is a further aspect to this.
It has been reported that Al-Mawla’s compound was rented in March 2021 by a Syrian IS operative using the name Mustafa al-Shaykh Yusuf, and U.S. intelligence later said that Yusuf used the kunya Abu Ahmed al-Halabi. If it is correct that Yusuf was killed in the house the same night as Al-Mawla, it could mean Yusuf was Abu Hamza. Assuming this is so, and that Yusuf really was a Syrian, it gives us a nationality for Abu Hamza. This is plausible in context: Abu Umar specifies that Abu Hamza was an “immigrant” (al-muhajir), in IS parlance a non-Iraqi, and the IS media department is well-known for having foreigners in senior positions: the most infamous of IS’s spokesmen, Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani), was a Syrian, for example. The implication of this would be that Abu Hamza was running personal security and communications logistics for the caliph, underlining the central role the media department plays within IS.
Another possibility, however, since the Pentagon said the “ISIS lieutenant” was killed on the second floor and a family (“one woman, one man, and a number of children”) were “safely removed” from the first floor, is that Abu Hamza was killed on the second floor and Yusuf was the man removed from the first—or that it was Yusuf on the second floor and Abu Hamza was never there at all.
IN WITH THE NEW
Abu Umar gives little away about the new caliph, nonetheless there are some interesting pieces to unpack:
The Islamic State’s Shura Council was not delayed [in appointing a new leader]. After the killing of Shaykh Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi, the people who loose and bind from among the mujahideen pledged allegiance to the glorified mujahid-shaykh and the burnished sword, Abu al-Hassan al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi—may God protect him—as the Commander of the Faithful and the Caliph of the Muslims, in accordance with the testament of Shaykh Abu Ibrahim, and he accepted the oath of allegiance … [I]f we were able, we would have revealed his [real] name and his image, but every word has its place.
All Muslims are called upon to pledge allegiance to IS’s new caliph and America is mocked for celebrating the death of people who welcome it.
The new caliph, Abu al-Hassan al-Quraysh, is, in his very name, said to be from the Quraysh tribe, a key traditional qualification for a caliph, placing him in the line of descent from the first four, Rashidun (rightly-guided) successors after the Prophet Muhammad. Another of the traditional qualifications is to be well-versed in the shari’a, and Abu Umar assures listened that Abu al-Hassan is from “the people of precedence and sincerity”. IS does generally choose leaders with formal Islamic qualifications, and there is no reason to think this time will be any different. Abu al-Hassan’s sound body, another of the qualifications, is left unsaid, perhaps because this would have raised a touchy subject, given Al-Mawla apparently having an amputated leg before he became caliph, which strictly speaking should have ruled him out.
It is interesting that Abu Umar specifies—in a limited way—how Abu al-Hassan was chosen, namely “in accordance with the testament” of Al-Mawla. As Aron Lund noted during the last go around, when this issue came up, the word for “testament” being translated here is “wasiyya”, which might also reasonably be given as “will”. Because of the variance in how caliphs were chosen even among the Rashidun, it gives IS rather wide scope to be selective in how it interprets the “proper” process for choosing its emir. Abu Umar mentions the Shura Council and “the people who loose and bind” as having adhered to Al-Mawla’s “testament”. In this case, more than in the last, it seems that Al-Mawla specified Abu al-Hassan—last time it was unclear if Al-Badri had put Al-Mawla on a shortlist of names or attributes, or named him directly—but it remains unclear what would have happened if the Shura Council or the bench of notables had objected to Al-Mawla’s will, not to mention that Abu Umar is hardly likely to advertise if there had been a vicious internal fight over the succession. We don’t really know what happened, is the bottom line, but it is interesting, as Lund noted in 2019, to see what IS wants us to believe happened.
The month’s delay in appointing the caliph gave scope for speculation about internal turmoil, and attempts by the Iraqi government and state intelligence agencies fighting IS to try to stimulate such, but the reality is that the delay does not mean much: Al-Badri was appointed in 2010 after a similar delay, and the oaths of allegiance (bayat) have been pouring in for Abu al-Hassan from IS’s “provinces” (wilayat), at the centre in Iraq and Syria, and all the way from Afghanistan to West Africa. It seems likelier that the month was used to introduce the new caliph to the rank-and-file before his proclamation. An indication of this comes from Omar Abu Layla, a Syrian expert who runs the DeirEzzor24 platform: he reported days after Al-Mawla was killed that Abu al-Hassan’s name was circulating among IS’s followers.
SO WHO IS HE?
Keeping the identity of the caliph secret will be used against IS in the polemics from other jihadists, who deny its right to claim a caliph over all Muslims: a caliph is supposed to be known and seen. In practice, this is the fourth time since the death of IS’s founder, Ahmad al-Khalayleh (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi), that the group has appointed a theoretically anonymous caliph, and it has not affected them so far. This time, as in a number of the previous cases, especially the last one, there is a reasonable suspicion that we do in fact know—or at least our governments do—who Abu al-Hassan is.
Hassan Hassan reported a month ago that the likely candidate for caliph was Bashar Khattab Ghazal al-Sumaidai, a senior judicial official in IS’s Shari’a Council, whose kunyas include Haji Zayd, Ustath Zayd (Professor Zaid), Abu Khattab al-Iraqi, Abu al-Muaz al-Iraqi, and Abu Ishaq. By any reckoning, Al-Sumaidai has to be considered one of the top contenders, and it is notable that pro-Al-Qaeda channels have begun claiming Abu al-Hassan is Al-Sumaidai, though it is possible these jihadists are picking the idea up from the ether and feeding it back, rather than making the claim based on any knowledge exclusive to them.
Another proposal from Reuters, relying on “two Iraqi security officials and one Western security source”, is Juma Awad al-Badri, the brother of Ibrahim al-Badri, the caliph killed in 2019. Juma, according to one of the Iraqi officials, joined the Iraqi jihad soon after Saddam Husayn’s regime came down in 2003; is the head of the Shura Council; and was known to “always accompany” his brother, acting as both “personal companion and Islamic legal adviser”. There are two other brothers of the deceased caliph: one has been in Iraqi custody for years, and the other is in parts unknown, believed to be participating in jihadism.
The final serious candidate at the present time to be the man behind the Abu al-Hassan mask is Ahmed Hamed Hussain al-Ithawi (or Abu Muslim al-Ithawi): “He is the Islamic State’s current governor of Iraq and was previously in charge of the Kawasir Brigade, an elite force part of the so-called Caliphate Army, in Anbar.” Of note: it seems Al-Ithawi was broken out of Abu Ghraib prison in July 2013, the capstone of the last BREAKING THE WALLS campaign.
 The title is drawn from Quran 33:23 and can be translated as: “Among Them Is He Who Has Fulfilled His Vow” or “Some Of Them Have Fulfilled Their Pledge” or “Some Of Them Have Paid Their Vow By Death”.
 It is possible, even likely, that the Sinaa prison break was partly orchestrated from Al-Hawl, ostensibly a displacement camp for the families of IS members, which is known to be a financial and facilitation hub for the terrorist group. While Sinaa was eventually brought back under control, since the attack on it there have been disturbances at Al-Hawl that left the SDF/PKK guards little choice but to use live fire “in a part of the camp that houses foreigners after a group of women and children attacked them with rocks and knives in an attempt to seize their guns”. This problem continues to fester and with general atmosphere in the “SDF” zone—one resident complained, “We can’t sleep at night”, because of the threat from IS—the jihadists have fertile ground for further Sinaa-style operations.
 The words used are “al-amil” (the worker), “al-abed” (the worshiper), and of course “Emir al-Mumineen” (Commander of the Faithful, sometimes given as “Prince of the Believers”).
 “The people who loose and bind” is an oft-given translation of “ahl al-hall wal-aqd”; a more literal translation is “the people of problem-solving and making contracts”. It refers to the powerful and influential people who had a role in the succession of the caliph during the period of Islamic history contemporaneous with medieval Christendom. IS has dredged up this idea as part of its effort to return Islam to its pristine form, before the infusion of Western notions of legitimacy into Islamdom. The word translated as “oath of allegiance” or “pledge of allegiance” is “bay’a”, a concept of the same vintage. “Every word has its place” is a translation of “likulli maqalin maqam”, the gist of which is that there is a proper time and place to say or reveal things.
 The Arabic is “ahl al-sabq wal-sidq”, with sabq meaning “precedence” or “rank” in terms of devotion and duty to the faith, and sidq meaning “sincerity” or “honesty” in Islamic belief.
 The Abu Ghraib operation in 2013 was planned by Adnan al-Suwaydawi (Abu Muhannad al-Suwaydawi or Haji Dawud), and freed, among others, the blood-soaked murderer of Camp Speicher who thereafter led the creation of IS’s wilaya in Libya, Wissam al-Zubaydi (Abu Nabil al-Anbari or Abul-Mughirah al-Qahtani), and the later IS security chief, Iyad al-Jumayli (Abu Yahya al-Iraqi).
Post has been updated