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How the Targeted Killing of ISIS Leaders Revives the Terror Group’s Ideology

ISIS has strategically developed ideological narratives around the fame, charisma, and selflessness of the "martyred" caliphs, and then used those myths to recruit.

Despite losing its leaders as a result of U.S. Special Forces “decapitation” strikes over the past three years, the Islamic State nevertheless has markedly bolstered its ideological appeal in the jihadi world by successfully leveraging the Islamic doctrine of Martyrdom (Shaheed) and the IS third global pledge (Bay’ah) campaign. Indeed, there is a paradoxical situation: with the frequent targeted killings of ISIS caliphs, the recruitment of local followers has noticeably increased and the “breakout capacity” of IS branches has strengthened in Central Asia (ISKP), Central Africa (ISCAP) and West Africa (ISWAP).

The past three years have been rich in events in the history of the Islamic State during which its Shura Council proclaimed its leaders as the “Amir al-Mu’minin” (Amir of the Faithful) four times. The story began on October 26, 2019, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the first caliph of ISIS, blew himself up during a U.S. special forces raid on his compound in the Syrian province of Idlib. Three days after, the Islamic State’s al-Furqan Media released a lengthy speech from its spokesman, Abu Hamza al-Qurashi, in which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was glorified as the “God-fearing Amir al-Mu’mineen and Caliph of the Muslims sacrificing himself on the path of Allah.” According to al-Furqan Media, “God Almighty determined for him to be killed in His path, and he was steadfast on his religion, going forth and not turning back in flight.” The IS official spokesman also announced the appointment of a certain Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi (a.k.a. Haji Abdullah Qardash or Abu Ibrahim) as the new “commander of the believers and Caliph of the Muslims.”

Sixteen months later, on February 3, 2022, IS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi was killed in a U.S. counterterrorism raid in Idlib province in northwestern Syria. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, IS’ second caliph killed himself and members of his family by triggering an explosive device to avoid capture during a raid by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command. The group’s spokesman Abu Omar al-Muhajir in his speech in al-Furqan Media eulogized IS’ second leader as the “Mujahid, Sheikh, worshipping Caliph, Amir al-Mu’mineen and great leader who gave his life for Allah.”

On March 10, 2022, after a month of mourning for Abu Ibrahim, as is customary in Islam, the ISIS top Shura named Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi (Abu al-Hassan) as the third caliph and the “Amir al-Muminin” (“Emir of the Faithful”). His reign lasted only eight months, the shortest period in the history of the Islamic State. On November 30, 2022, IS spokesman Abu Omar al-Muhajir announced that Islamic State leader Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi had been killed in the battle without revealing any specific details. Hours after the announcement, CENTCOM confirmed his killing, adding that it had occurred in Daraa province, in southern Syria, in mid-October at the hands of “the Free Syrian Army” (FSA).

Thus, IS caliph Abu al-Hassan was killed in an operation without U.S. involvement. However, IS spokesman al-Muhajir described the slain caliph Abu al-Hassan as “God’s soldier who fought in the path of Allah and sacrificed his life and properties in order to gain Paradise,” quoting the Quranic surah of “At-Tawba”. Further, al-Muhajir also announced that the IS Shura Council named Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurashi (Abu al-Hussein), an unknown figure in the jihadi world, the new (fourth) caliph of the Islamic State.

A Premature Celebration of ISIS Collapse

Following the brilliant U.S. counterterror operations resulting in the targeted killing of ISIS and al-Qaeda leaders, Western society harbored excessive hopes for the accelerated collapse of the notorious transnational Salafi-Jihadi terrorist groups. This news became the main event on a global scale and the engine of domestic political processes. The targeted killing of ISIS’ first caliph, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, was triumphantly announced personally by former President Donald Trump, saying, “At my direction, as commander-in-chief of the U.S., we obliterated ISIS caliphate, 100 percent.” Following this tradition, on February 3, 2022, President Biden released a brief statement and then delivered remarks to the American people on how U.S. forces successfully carried out a counterterror operation that resulted in the targeted killing of second IS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi in northwest Syria.

However, the bitter truth is that the Islamic State’s demise, foretold after the targeting killing of its leaders, has often been premature. The targeted killings of the Islamic State’s founder, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in October 2019 and his successors, Abu Ibrahim and Abu al-Hasan, in 2022 also did not hasten the collapse of the movement by “100 percent”. On the contrary, the Islamic State and its local branches (provinces) have shown a stubborn struggle for ideological revival and peculiar survivability during the leadership transition.

Undoubtedly, targeted killings or “decapitation strikes” against leaders of ISIS and al-Qaeda are important in U.S. counterterrorism. However, the ideological revival of the Islamic State and the increased combat capability of its local provinces (wilayats) again raise questions about the impacts and effectiveness of counterterrorism strategies that target transnational Salafi-Jihadi terrorist groups. Analysis of ISIS activities over the past three years has revealed that its media strategists have successfully exploited targeted killings of its caliphs and frequent leadership transitions to inspire support and loyalty among affiliates around the world.

After a series of losses of its leaders, the Islamic State is promoting narratives that the IS caliphs are ordinary Mujahideen and simple warriors of Allah, fighting against the enemy of Islam. According to the pro-IS Salafi scholars, the death of the Caliph does not lead to the decline of the Caliphate, but only ignites hope for the irreversible victory of the Islamic Ummah. Developing this notion, the Islamic State’s al-Naba Media claims that the Caliph is not a king who does not leave his throne, surrounded by servants and courtiers who come and go with all kinds of pleasures. “In fact, the caliphs wage jihad and willingly accept death in the path of Allah, just as the Rashidun caliphs Omar was killed with a dagger, Uthman was cut with swords, and ‘Ali was struck with a sword. In the same way, IS’s last three caliphs were killed, their body parts scattered in defense of the religion.” Such a narrative of the late three IS caliphs serves as an ideological stimulant for IS supporters.

ISIS not only survived the targeted killings of its leaders, but it continued to regroup and become more of a threat with the growth of its external “provinces” (wilayat) in Afghanistan and Pakistan (ISKP), Nigeria (ISWAP), Mozambique (ISCAP), Sinai Peninsula (ISSP) and Philippines (ISEAP). The Islamic State seeks to compensate for the loss of its “territorial caliphate” and the frequent targeted killings of its leaders by spreading violent Salafi ideology to keep its global project thriving. So long as IS thrives in its external provinces, the dream of the global caliphate remains alive.

The Islamic State’s Third Bay’ah Campaign

The most important ISIS tactic in its leadership transition is its global Bay’ah (pledges of allegiance) campaign to the new Caliph indicating a persistent global jihadist threat. On November 30, 2022, according to its ideological strategy, the Islamic State launched a new global bay’ah campaign to its fourth caliph, Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurashi. Since then, from December until now, heavy pledges of allegiance to ISIS’ new leader have been flooding in from its provinces across the Middle East, Africa, and Central and South Asia.

To be more precise, fifteen IS affiliates and pro-IS groups have already pledged allegiance to the new caliph: Iraq and Syria (IS-Iraq and al-Sham), IS-Yemen Province, Afghanistan and post-Soviet Central Asia (ISKP), West Africa (ISWAP), Central Africa (ISCAP), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (IS-DRC), IS-Sahel Province (ISGS), IS-Mozambique (IS-M), IS-Libya Province, IS-Somalia Province, Philippines (ISEAP), Pakistan (ISPP), India (ISHP), IS-Sinai Province, IS-Caucasus Province. According to SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks jihadi media, ISIS operatives and supporters from at least 30 countries have rushed headlong into the Islamic State’s bay’ah campaign. Not surprisingly, the Islamic State’s bay’ah campaign is still in the headlines of jihadi social media outlets profusely publishing photos and videos of IS militants pledging allegiance to the new so-called “Amir al-Muminin”.

Undoubtedly, the Islamic State’s theatrical bay’ah campaign is ideologically inspiring its local provinces, hardline Takfiri outfits and pro-IS Salafi jihadists around the world cementing their loyalty to the Caliphate as a proto-state project. IS ideologues used photos and videos from the Islamic State’s third global pledge campaign to demonstrate the group’s steadfastness after the targeted killing of its caliph. The Islamic State’s bay’ah campaign also provides an opportunity for IS-Central to assert to current and future provinces that it is a unified and expanding global Caliphate.

Are ISIS’ Caliphs Really Martyrs?

In response to the targeted killing of its leaders, Islamic State’s official speaker through the group’s media arms, usually al-Hayat Media Center and al-Furqan Media, glorify its fallen leaders emphasizing the sacred significance of martyrs (Shaheed). Further, IS’ spokesperson called on the Caliphate warriors to avenge the targeted killings of late IS leaders in order to exaggerate the strength and cohesion of the group.

After targeted killings of its leaders, IS strategists struggle to revive the Islamic State’s harsh Salafi-Jihadi ideology (al-Salafiyya al-Jihadiyya) through the Islamic doctrinal concept of Shaheed (martyrdom), to which jihadi insurgents are firmly committed. The cult of Shaheed contributes to turning the late IS leaders killed in targeted attacks into a subject of ideological inspiration.

In official statements about the targeted killings of its caliphs, IS claimed that they all martyred on the jihadi battlefield while fighting the enemies of Islam. IS ideologists seek to exploit the myth of shaheed to lead by example, energize their followers and recruit new supporters. The IS propaganda machine manipulated the Shaheed concept to suit its needs. Although the term shaheed in the Qur’an refers exclusively to a legal or eyewitness, modern Salafi-Jihadi ideologies exploit it extensively to denote martyrs who died for their Islamic faith or in the defense of their nation, family, and property.

Announcing the death of IS’s third caliph Abu al-Hassan, Islamic State’s al-Furqan Media said that “he sacrificed his peace of mind, his soul, and his property for the sake of Allah.” Further, the editorial quoted Surah At-Tawba from the Quran: “Indeed, Allah has purchased from the believers their lives and their properties in exchange for that they will have Paradise.” It is noteworthy that, exploiting the examples of its late caliphs, the Islamic State seeks to inspire its followers to sacrifice their lives and properties for sake of Islam in order to earn the mercy of Allah Almighty and enter Paradise.

According to Islam, even the clothes of a martyr acquire a sacred value. A Shaheed who fell on the battlefield should be buried in the same clothes without washing him or not wrapping in a shroud. Intentionally leaving traces of martyrdom on the body, Islam elevates the role and significance of the martyr who sacrificed his life “in the path of Allah and Islam.” Perhaps, ISIS’ third caliph Abu al-Hassan was buried according to the Martyrdom canons in Syrian Daraa province, while nothing was left from the bodies of first and second IS caliphs, al-Baghdadi and Abu Ibrahim, after the explosions.

In conclusion, the targeted killings of IS leaders over the past three years have catalyzed the ideological revival of its provinces, as the victims were heroized as martyrs. ISIS has strategically developed ideological narratives around the fame, charisma, and selflessness of the “martyred” caliphs, and then used those myths to recruit new supporters and expand its provinces. Analysis suggests that the targeted killing of IS leaders could have an impact on reducing ISIS’ capabilities and violence, but on the other hand, it provides food for the glorification of its murdered leaders for the flourishing of its violent ideology.

Therefore, it would be preferable for the U.S. counterterrorism forces and their strategic partners to capture the top leaders of IS and al-Qaeda to deprive them of the opportunity to manipulate inspiring religious narratives. Indeed, capturing is often preferred to targeted killings. Unlike martyrs, captive caliphs do not have sacred value and cannot influence the revival of ISIS ideology. But one can assume that the Islamic State will continue to rely on the Islamic concept of Shaheed and its bay’ah campaigns for a long time to survive after each targeted killing of its leaders.

Uran Botobekov, Ph.D.
Dr. Uran Botobekov is a leading expert on the Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi Movement, a research fellow, and a member of the Advisory Board of EU Modern Diplomacy. During his career, Dr. Botobekov combined public and diplomatic service for the Kyrgyz government with scientific research. At various times he worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as the head of the State Policy Department of Governmental Agency for Public Service Affairs of Kyrgyz Government and the Press Secretary of the Kyrgyz President. He also served as the Counselor-Ambassador of the Kyrgyz Republic to Turkey and Ukraine. Dr. Botobekov regularly publishes books, articles, and Op-eds. He is the author of two books, several articles, and book chapters regarding Sunni Jihadism, terrorist financing, and radical Islamism. His research and analytical articles on militant Salafism in the post-Soviet Central Asian space were published in Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Japan, USA, India, China, Vietnam, Germany, and Kyrgyzstan. His 2019 book, “Think Like Jihadist: Anatomy of Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi Groups,” analyzes the stages of formation and development of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and other militant groups in post-Soviet Central Asia, as well as their joining global ISIS and al Qaida. At the same time, Dr. Botobekov contributed to media and research platforms such as CSIS, Modern Diplomacy, The Diplomat, The Jamestown Foundation, The American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst and Carnegie Moscow Center on counterterrorism and homeland security issues. He regularly advised governments of Central Asian countries on matters relating to radical Salafism and Islamist extremism.

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