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Islamic State Names New Leader, Shares Only His Nom-de-Guerre


FILE - A flag of Islamic State militants is seen above a destroyed house in Raqqa, Syria, Oct. 18, 2017.

More than a month after the former leader of Islamic State blew himself up during a raid by U.S. special forces in northwestern Syria, the terror group says a new leader is in place.

A more than 12-minute-long audio recording posted to social media Thursday introduced the new IS emir by the nom-de-guerre Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi and claimed he has been leading the group since shortly after the death of his predecessor.

"The Islamic State's Shura Council did not delay, as after the killing of Shaikh Abu Ibrahim al-Qurashi … the mujahideen pledged allegiance to the great mujahid, with the refined sword, Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi," according to a translation of the recording by the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks terrorist content online.

The statement, delivered by the terror group's newly appointed spokesman, Abu Umar al-Muhajir, also confirmed the death of the previous spokesman, Abu Hamza al-Qurashi, which had not been previously reported.

Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, who according to the audio statement was selected for the role by his predecessor, becomes the third emir to lead the terror group since it began calling itself Islamic State.

The group's first leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, killed himself during a U.S. raid, also in northwestern Syria, in 2019. The equally reclusive Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, also known by multiple other names including Hajji Abdallah and Amir Muhammad Sa'id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla, was named as his replacement five days later.

Following Abu Ibrahim's death, some analysts had speculated IS would delay the meeting of senior leaders needed to name a successor due to concerns U.S. forces might have acquired intelligence on the group's security practices during the early February raid.

According to the new IS spokesman, that appears not to have been the case.

"(I'm) not sure we can know exactly when it was made," Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who specializes in jihadism, told VOA regarding Abu al-Hassan's promotion to IS emir.

"There were rumors about Abu al-Hassan since a few days after Abu Ibrahim's death, so it's plausible it was a relatively quick decision," Zelin said, adding that concerns about security may have delayed the public announcement.

U.S. officials contacted by VOA declined to comment on the IS announcement or on the identity of the new leader, though the choice of his name follows a familiar pattern.

Like his predecessor, Abu al-Hassan selected a name designed to indicate he is a descendant of the Hashemite clan of the Qurashi tribe, which by bloodline would link him to Prophet Muhammed — an IS requirement for any would-be caliph.

As for determining the new leader's real identity, it could take some time.

Western counterterrorism officials needed more than a year to confirm Abu Ibrahim was the terrorist known as Hajji Abdallah or al-Mawla, the religious scholar responsible for the genocide of the Yezidi minority in Syria who had also spent time imprisoned with al-Baghdadi in 2004 at Camp Bucca, a U.S.-run facility in Basra, Iraq.

Still, there are some who think they may know already the true identity of the new IS caliph.

New Lines Magazine last month identified Bashar Khattab Ghazal al-Sumaidai as next in line.

"Known by numerous noms de guerre, including Ustath Zaid (Teacher or Professor Zaid), Abu Khattab al-Iraqi, Abu al-Moez al-Iraqi and Abu Ishaq, he returned to Syria from Turkey about a year ago," New Lines said, adding that al-Sumaidai had become increasingly popular in jihadist circles.

According to New Lines, al-Sumaidai joined IS in 2013 and was appointed as chief judge a year later. He also reportedly had a close working relationship with Abu Ibrahim, despite having been based in southern Turkey since 2017.

Regardless of Abu al-Hassan's actual identity, analysts and intelligence officials expect the terror group to mount a campaign to make sure key branches and affiliates pledge allegiance — give bay'ah — to the new leader.

SITE Intelligence Group reported Thursday that some IS followers have already begun to pledge their loyalty on social media.