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Colin P. Clarke

Opinion | Biden Just Took Out ISIS’ Top Leader. What’s Next?

This partially redacted image from video taken on Feb. 3 shows the compound before a raid during which al-Qurayshi died. The compound is located in Syria's northwestern Idlib province. | Department of Defense via AP

This morning, President Joe Biden announced the death of Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, an Iraqi of Turkmen origin who has led the group since a U.S. strike took out its previous leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in 2019. U.S. Special Forces surrounded al-Qurayshi in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib. Rather than surrender, he detonated an explosive device that killed him and several members of his family (thus far, there are 13 known civilian deaths).

Unlike Baghdadi, who was a charismatic figure well-known throughout the global jihadi movement, al-Qurayshi operated under the radar. This reflects ISIS’ own changing fortunes: When Baghdadi led the group, it controlled large swaths of territory and commanded legions of fighters. Under al-Qurayshi, ISIS has mostly been focused on survival, looking for opportunities to reinvigorate its organization across Iraq and Syria. His death will be a setback for ISIS, especially if his replacement is another lower-profile operative, rather than a highly visible celebrity like Baghdadi. Lesser-known leaders typically struggle to inspire new followers and generate propaganda that resonates with potential recruits.

For the Biden administration, eager to demonstrate that it can conduct effective counterterrorism in the post-Afghanistan era, the strike is surely a win (though a qualified one, since investigations into the civilian casualties are ongoing and details are yet to emerge). But Washington should also be worried about who comes next. If the next ISIS leader is relatively unknown like Qurayshi, it could helpfully sap the group’s already flagging recruitment efforts. But such figures are also harder to track, since there’s less existing intelligence on them. The U.S. and its allies may be hard-pressed to put together an accurate intelligence portfolio and map the new leader’s network. As the war shifts from a traditional military conflict to one focused on intelligence-gathering and strikes against specific figures, this could be a real tradeoff.

More generally, given the historical resilience of ISIS, there is little reason to believe the strike will be the death knell the U.S. is hoping for. Indeed, targeted assassinations rarely are. ISIS will rebound from the death of al-Qurayshi just as it rebounded from the loss of Baghdadi. This means the U.S. is likely to keep conducting sporadic strikes against high-value targets in Syria — the continuation of a low-intensity, but still deadly, counter-terrorism war — for the foreseeable future.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that al-Qurayshi was hiding in Idlib province, the same place Baghdadi was found two years ago. Idlib, and northwestern Syria more broadly, is a stronghold of groups that oppose ISIS, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Hurras al-Din. That al-Qurayshi sought refuge in such a highly contested corner of Syria may suggest that ISIS’ geographic reach is greater than many analysts previously believed, stretching beyond its current stronghold in Badia in the central Syrian desert and the small villages and towns dotting northeastern Syria, where ISIS launched a series of prison breaks last week.

Replacing Qurayshi is likely to be a challenge for ISIS, particularly if the next leader is not someone with a reputation on par with previous jihadi stalwarts, like Baghdadi and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Whoever comes next may lack the religious or military credentials of his predecessors, leaving the group struggling to recruit. Succession presents terrorist groups with difficult decisions. High-profile, charismatic leaders can be effective recruiters, but they also present attractive counterterrorism targets. Leadership transitions also create the risk of rifts between top commanders, opening longstanding tensions between factions competing internally.

It’s also unclear to what extent al-Qurayshi had been communicating with ISIS branches and affiliates around the world. Given that ISIS provinces in West Africa, Central Africa and South Asia have all been stepping up their activity lately, removing al-Qurayshi could have a significant impact on ISIS’ global operations. His death could also spur revenge attacks in far-flung corners of the globe as ISIS seeks to hit back at Western interests wherever it can.

Last September, Biden said that for the first time in 20 years, “the United States is not at war.” But it’s hard to square that with the fact that an elite team of U.S. Special Forces just conducted a sophisticated operation in hostile territory. Reports suggest Biden was informed of al-Qurayshi’s location in early December and that for several weeks, military and intelligence planners have been crafting an operation that would neutralize the ISIS leader while minimizing casualties. Of course, U.S. Special Forces are still active in failed states and ungoverned spaces throughout the globe, from the desert in the Sahel to archipelagos in the Philippines.

The administration has been keen to use the strike to demonstrate resolve to allies and signal U.S. reliability, a major concern after the botched Afghanistan withdrawal. Part of Biden’s reasoning for leaving Afghanistan was that the U.S. could conduct “over-the-horizon” strikes to keep terror groups off balance. The Syria strike seems designed to highlight that capability, especially after the failed retaliatory drone strike that killed 10 civilians, including seven children, in Kabul in late August. In the al-Qurayshi strike, which seems to have produced civilian casualties because the terror leader detonated a bomb, the U.S. actually chose a raid — much riskier to its own personnel — over airstrikes due to concerns about hurting innocents, since bombing the compound would have guaranteed collateral damage.

Most of what U.S. Special Operations Forces are doing in Syria and Iraq is intelligence-focused efforts to attenuate ISIS’ networks, eliminating key leaders through targeted strikes against its commanders and top strategists. In October, Iraqi security forces captured and arrested ISIS’ financial chief. Taking out a terrorist group’s top leaders one after another can definitely be effective in preventing it from mounting a comeback. However, decapitation strikes are no substitute for a more comprehensive strategy, which also requires disrupting a group’s logistical networks, revenue-generating activities and recruitment pipelines. Given the pared-down U.S. presence, American allies have mostly been the ones doing these tasks — notably, the Syrian Democratic Forces and Iraqi security forces.

There is little doubt that al-Qurayshi’s death will hamper ISIS in the short term. However, it won’t dismantle the organization in any meaningful way. Whoever takes the helm next for ISIS will be determined to continue the fight, and the U.S. will likely respond — whether or not the president admits America is at war.

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