The leader of the Islamic State group, killed in a U.S. raid overnight in northwest Syria, was a veteran insider and top ideologue of the extremist movement, believed to have played a key role in one of its most horrific atrocities: the enslavement of thousands of women from Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority.
Known as Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, he kept himself wrapped in mystery during his more than two years as the group’s “caliph.” Almost no public photos of him exist, he never appeared in public or in IS videos.
From hiding, he led the group’s remnants as they regrouped following the downfall of their caliphate and shifted underground to wage an insurgency in Iraq and Syria.
He met his end in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province in a house he had rented only about 24 kilometers (15 miles) from the safehouse where his predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was hunted down by the Americans in a similar raid in October 2019.
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His death comes as IS militants, after years of low-level hit-and-run ambushes, had begun to carry out bolder, higher-profile attacks. Last month, IS attacked a prison in northeast Syria to free jailed comrades, leading to a 10 day battle with Kurdish-led forces that left some 500 dead.
Al-Qurayshi’s death may disrupt the group’s momentum in the short term, but is unlikely to hurt its operations in the long term.
“It’s an organization not focused on charismatic leadership, but ideas, which is why its leaders have been pretty low-profile,” Aaron Y. Zelin, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said. “I think the IS machine will continue with whoever the new leader is.”
Al-Qurayshi’s real name was Amir Mohammed Saeed Abdul-Rahman al-Mawla. He was an Iraqi in his mid-40s, born in 1976 and believed to be an ethnic Turkman from the northern Iraqi town of Tel Afar. He held a degree in Islamic law from the University of Mosul.
He took the al-Qurayshi nom de guerre after being elevated to IS leader following al-Baghdadi’s death — suggesting that he, like his predecessor, claimed links to the tribe of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
Like his predecessor, al-Qurayshi spent his last days in Idlib province, an area held by insurgent groups hostile to IS some distance from the main theaters of war in eastern Syria and Iraq where the group once held vast swaths of territory in a self-declared “caliphate.”
He was staying in a three-story house in the town of Atmeh, near the border with Turkey. During the early morning raid Thursday, he blew himself up, killing a number of women and children along with him, according to U.S. officials. First responders at the scene said 13 people, including four women and six children, were killed during the raid, during which U.S, forces battled gunmen in and around the house.
Idlib, the last major rebel stronghold in Syria, is home to 3 million people, many of them displaced by the civil war, making it easy for strangers to blend in. The house, surrounded by olive trees, appears to have been chosen by al-Qurayshi to be as far away as possible from the eyes of onlookers.
Neighbors said the man who lived on the top floor with his family had earlier identified himself as Abu Ahmad, a Syrian who was displaced by war from Aleppo province, according to journalists at the scene. Arabiya TV said three of the women killed in the raid might have been al-Qurayshi’s wives.
Since taking command of IS, al-Qurayshi has topped the wanted list of the U.S. and other regional governments fighting the extremists. He did not appear in public, and rarely released any audio recordings. His influence and day-to-day involvement in the group’s operations is not known, and he has no known successor.
Al-Qurayshi began his militant work shortly after former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was removed from power. A year after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, al-Qurayshi joined al-Qaida in Iraq, run by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Following al-Zarqawi’s death in a U.S. strike in 2006, al-Qurayshi became a senior official with the al-Qaida affiliate’s successor group, the Islamic State in Iraq. He soon became the group’s top Islamic Sharia law official in Mosul, according to a report by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Al-Qurayshi was also known by other noms de guerre, Abu Omar al-Turkmani, Abdullah Qaradash and Hajji Abdullah.
He was arrested by U.S. troops in Mosul in 2008 and was detained for two years.
Al-Baghdadi, meanwhile, transformed the organization into the Islamic State group, breaking with al-Qaida. In 2014, ISIS overran much of northern and eastern Syria and northern Iraq and declared its caliphate.
Al-Qurayshi was a member of the Delegated Committee, the senior IS executive body, and served as the group’s senior judge and Sharia official in Iraq, “exercising religious authority over all IS activity” there, according to the Center for International Justice and Accountability, which investigated him as part of its effort to compile cases against senior IS figures on war crimes and crimes against humanity.
In that role, he was central to the group’s massacre of Yazidi men and boys and enslavement of thousands of Yazidi women kidnapped when IS overran the heartland of the minority group in northwest Iraq. He oversaw the distribution of enslaved women and children to IS members and was responsible for forced conversions of children, CIJA said in a statement.
Al-Qurayshi “had enormous power to persecute and punish IS’s enemies as far back as 2014. Not only was he one of the key architects of the Islamic State slave trade in Yazidi women and children, he personally enslaved and raped captive women,” Nerma Jelacic, CIJA’s deputy director.
President Joe Biden said al-Qurayshi was directly responsible for last month’s prison strike in Syria, as well as the mass killings of the Yazidi people in Iraq.
“He was the driving force behind the genocide of the Yazidi people,” Biden said Thursday. “We all remember the gut-wrenching stories, mass slaughters that wiped out entire villages, thousands of women and young girls sold into slavery, rape used as a weapon of war.”