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Islamic State Could be Headed for Generational Change


FILE - A flag of Islamic State militants is pictured above a destroyed house near the Clock Square in Raqqa, Syria, Oct.18, 2017.

Intelligence agencies and private analysts say there is little doubt Islamic State senior leaders already have a good idea of who will be next to lead the terror group as it seeks to reestablish a physical caliphate and strike at the West.

But while the name may be familiar to those in the group's inner circle, and perhaps even to the leadership of some IS affiliates, the next leader could remain somewhat of a mystery to the outside world even after he is identified.

"I think that there's definitely a succession plan that ISIS has implemented in the same way that they previously did with [former leader] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi," said Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who specialized in jihadism, using an acronym for the terror group.

"They have strong message discipline, so when they want to put it out or when the decision has been made, they will put it out. It's just about putting their ducks in a row essentially from there," he told VOA.

Following Baghdadi's death in 2019, it took IS just five days to confirm he had been killed and announce a new leader, calling him by the nom de guerre Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi.

However, it took more than a year before Western officials were able to conclude that al-Qurashi was, in fact, Amir Muhammad Sa'id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla, a religious scholar who had been imprisoned with Baghdadi in 2004 at Camp Bucca, a U.S.-run facility in Basra, Iraq.

Whether an announcement is imminent regarding a replacement for al-Mawla, killed during a U.S. raid on his home in northwestern Syria on February 3, remains to be seen.

Some analysts told VOA the process by which senior leaders formally meet and name him could be delayed due to concerns U.S. forces may have breached the group's operational security with information picked up during the raid.

The process of formally selecting the new IS leader, and introducing him, could also be impacted by the fact that the terror group's senior leadership has been hit hard over the past few years.

"The coalition against ISIS … killed so many top-level leaders that, at least publicly, there's less awareness about who was just below that that has risen up," Zelin said.

Most recently, IS lost its presumed second-in-command in October when Iraqi forces arrested Sami Jasim Muhammad al-Jaburi, also known as Hajji Hamid.

Two other top IS officials, including the group's deputy commander and top official in Iraq, Abu Yasar al-Issawi, were killed just over a year ago.

IS, however, has a long history of planning for leaders to be killed and replaced. U.S. defense and intelligence officials said such contingency planning was one of the factors that made IS so formidable during its self-declared caliphate.

Recent U.S. intelligence found that if there were any signs of IS succumbing to internal squabbling, they were not evident prior to al-Mawla's death.

IS showed "few signs of major fracturing or disaggregation," the Defense Intelligence Agency told the Pentagon's inspector general in a report published Tuesday.

The DIA further said it found no indication any affiliates were considering abandoning IS' black flag.

Analysts think that is unlikely to change even when the new leadership is announced.

"When you look at who's left, so many leaders have been culled over the years, that the person that is selected is clearly a survivor," said Colin Clarke, director of policy and research at the global intelligence firm The Soufan Group.

"This is someone that's probably going to be long in the tooth … somebody that's got gravitas," he told VOA.

FILE - People inspect a destroyed house following a U.S. military operation in Atmeh, Syria, Feb. 3, 2022. Islamic State leader Amir Muhammad Sa'id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla was killed in the raid.
FILE - People inspect a destroyed house following a U.S. military operation in Atmeh, Syria, Feb. 3, 2022. Islamic State leader Amir Muhammad Sa'id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla was killed in the raid.

Only that does not mean the new IS leader will be like al-Mawla, a veteran jihadist who became part of Baghdadi's inner circle during the terror group's early history.

"Any time you have a leadership transition, it's a vulnerable time," Clarke said. "Is there some kind of a power grab or disconnect between those who are fighting and those who are hiding out like al-Qurashi [al-Mawla] was?"

Other analysts say IS may not have much choice but to pick someone younger or, at least, newer to the terror group's inner circle.

"I think what we're seeing here is that we've killed off the older generation or the first generation of the al-Qaida ISIS leaders, you know, the ones who started in the early 2000s," said Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "We're now looking at the next generation taking over."

Whoever the new leader is, and whenever he is announced, experts expect IS will seek to play up his credentials. That means offering supporters assurances that the new person has the right lineage.

Al-Mawla's nom de guerre, al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, indicated that he, like Baghdadi before him, came from the same tribe as the Prophet Muhammad.

Like the announcement of al-Mawla's leadership, intelligence officials and analysts also expect any statement will be quickly followed by a series of pledges from key IS affiliates from Africa to Asia, all promising their allegiance to the new self-declared caliph.

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