SFor the second time this year, “Islamic State” (IS) has announced the death of its leader. In an audio message on Telegram on Wednesday, the terrorist organization announced the change at the top. The new “Caliph” will be someone with the combat name Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Quraishi. The identity of the previous jihadist leader also remained unknown. The American military confirmed his death and spoke of a “further blow” against the terrorist organization. The IS leader was killed by non-jihadist rebels in southern Syria in mid-October, a spokesman said. American troops stationed in Syria to fight ISIS were not involved.
Years ago, reports like this would have made the headlines. But the IS leaders have long since lost the importance of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who declared himself “Caliph Ibrahim” in 2014. At that time, his terrorist organization controlled large parts of the country in Syria and Iraq, keeping the world in suspense with terrifying images and terrorist attacks. Today, IS operates from remote areas and underground as a resilient guerrilla force whose supply and communication channels are under constant pressure.
Technocrats of Terror
The type of leadership has also changed. Back then, Baghdadi was seen more as the face than the brain of IS. Many of the top commanders were former military and intelligence officials of Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime; ruthless but shrewd technocrats of terror who ran a tight bureaucracy. According to experts, there is hardly anything left of this leadership group, which orchestrated the rise of IS.
A report by the “Crisis Group” from the summer states that the IS leadership is giving general instructions, not commands in day-to-day business. “The group now appears to be operating on two levels: a core of fighters acting under orders from the leadership carry out complex attacks, while a second, larger group of decentralized cells carry out smaller, more frequent attacks, intimidate the public and manage the money. ISIS has built communication and transit networks that connect different regions of Syria.
According to the Crisis Group, most recruits are trained in the Badia desert, the inhospitable central Syrian hinterland. In the north and northwest, the IS maintains hiding places for middle and higher commanders who are hardly noticeable among the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons.
attacks in the Northeast
There seems to be a lot of movement between the central Syrian regions ruled by Bashar al-Assad and the north-east of the country, where an autonomous government dominated by the Kurdish PKK is in charge. Men and material are moved between the two zones of influence. Money is collected and supplies stored in the northeast. At the same time, IS repeatedly carries out attacks on security forces or leading personalities in order to undermine trust in the local government.
In late January, IS attacked a makeshift prison in the city of Hassakeh, which was ravaged by heavy fighting for several days. The attempt to free the jihadists imprisoned there failed. But the fighting was a warning. ISIS has left a dangerous legacy: Thousands of captured fighters and tens of thousands of detained family members of ISIS jihadists. The vast camp of al-Hol is a dangerous hotbed where killings and beheadings occur regularly. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), dominated by Kurdish militiamen, have been complaining for years that they have been left alone with these problems.
distrust of Kurds
In doing so, they remain silent about the fact that the successful infiltration campaign before the spectacular large-scale attack in Hassakeh is also an expression of great resentment among the Arab population towards the power-conscious Kurds. In Raqqa, the former IS bastion, far beyond the Kurdish heartland, many perceive the Kurdish leadership as dictatorial. A tribal leader said there in early summer that a strengthened IS would not find it difficult to take the city given the alienation of many Arab tribes.
At the moment, however, the SDF is primarily threatened by danger from Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been announcing a military operation in the Kurdish northeast of Syria for months. He backed up this threat with heavy artillery and air attacks. One of them also endangered American soldiers stationed there. Defense Secretary in Washington Lloyd Austin on Wednesday told Ankara his “strong opposition” to a new Turkish military operation in Syria and his concerns about the escalation. According to SDF commander Mazloum Abdi, the Kurdish forces have suspended operations against IS for the time being after the Turkish airstrikes.