U.S. defense officials believe they have unmasked the Islamic State terror group’s current leader, until now known by his nom de guerre, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi.
IS announced the selection of Qurashi as its new caliph this past October, just days after the death of former leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a U.S. raid, but his true identity has been a question.
Now, the U.S. has determined with confidence Qurashi is actually Hajji ‘Abdallah, according to a defense official who spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity.
‘Abdallah, who also went by the name Amir Muhammad Said Abdal Rahman al-Mawla, is religious scholar who rose through the ranks of IS’ predecessor organization, al-Qaida in Iraq to eventually become, one of Baghdadi’s top deputies.
According to U.S. intelligence officials, ‘Abdallah was also a key architect of the Islamic State’s slaughter of the Yazidi religious minority and was charged with overseeing some of the terror group’s global operations.
U.S. defense and counterterrorism officials have long suspected Qurashi and ‘Abdallah were one and the same, describing him as a “logical choice” to lead IS, but until now have been reticent to say so definitively.
The U.S. assessment of Qurashi’s true identity is in line with the assessments of other intelligence agencies, though some still have reservations because of his ethnic heritage.
“His Turkmen ethnicity led some Member States to assess that he might only be a temporary choice,” according to a new U.N. report on the terror group, questioning whether he could truly claim descent from the Qurashi Hashemite tribe, a quality IS sees as a requirement for any caliph.
IS quickly tried to quash any doubts or dissent, launching a social media campaign showing photos of IS fighters from Africa to the Philippines pledging bay’ah, or loyalty, to the new leader.
But some intelligence agencies are now expressing doubts about the credibility of the campaign and question whether the terror group’s new leadership will be able to keep its far-flung followers in line as time passes.
The U.S. and its allies also note that IS, at least in Syria and Iraq, appears to be struggling, unable to take advantage of protests in Iraq and tensions between the U.S. and Iran.
“I don’t think it’s an immediate threat of an immediate resurgence,” Major General Alex Grynkewich, deputy commander of the U.S.-led coalition to defeat IS, recently told Pentagon reporters.
“ISIS hasn’t been able to exploit any of the gaps or seams that may have arisen,” he said, using an acronym for the terror group. “ISIS is a little bit more on the lack of capability and capacity side than strategically patient.”
That has led to doubts about whether Qurashi will be able to position IS to reemerge, even over the long term, even as the group’s current efforts to maintain control and recruit additional followers appears to be steady.
“It is unclear whether [Qurashi] will emerge as an effective organizing force,” the U.N. report states.
But counterterrorism officials and analysts also caution it would be a mistake to underestimate IS.
ISIS has proved that it is an opportunistic organization,” said Colin Clarke, a senior fellow at the Soufan Center, a global security research group. “
Moreover, ISIS is actively working to rebuild its networks in Iraq, Syria and beyond, and is also looking to take advantage of operational spaces like Afghanistan and other weak states plagued by civil war and violence,” he said.
Other analysts point out that Qurashi has seen the fortunes of IS rise and fall before, and is unlikely to be intimidated.
Information compiled by the U.S.-based nonprofit Counter Extremism Project, which tracks terror organizations, indicates that, starting in 2004, Qurashi spent time at the now-infamous Camp Bucca, a U.S. prison near Basra, Iraq, where he first met with many other future IS officials, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.