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Stepping Out from the Shadows: The Interrogation of the Islamic State’s Future Caliph

Leadership transitions in any organization can produce uncertainty and invite speculation regarding the organization’s future trajectory. This dynamic is especially the case in clandestine terrorist organizations, in which the desire to publicize continuity of purpose and the qualifications of the incoming leader must be balanced with the need to maintain secrecy. For the group known as the Islamic State, this balancing act was of the utmost importance given the fact that on October 26, 2019, the group’s previous leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been killed in a raid by U.S. military forces and the overall organization was merely a shadow of what it had been during the organization’s highwater mark in the summer of 2015.

Thus, when the group announced the appointment of Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurashi as “commander of the believers and caliph of the Muslims” on October 31, 2019, it had to anticipate that its new leader would be under intense scrutiny and face a series of daunting challenges in an organization that, while still maintaining the capability to carry out serious operations, was also consistently being targeted by hostile forces, both from the outside but also from the inside as well.1 The Islamic State did not have to wait long to see the criticism come to fruition. Merely a few days following the announcement of al-Qurashi’s appointment as leader of the Islamic State, essays critical of the new leader began to circulate online among verified channels of Islamic State supporters. Among other critiques, these essays attacked the relative anonymity of al-Qurashi, referring to him as the “secluded paper caliph” and “an unknown nobody.”2 Such critiques were deflected by other Islamic State supporters, who argued that more knowledge of al-Qurashi was neither necessary from a legal perspective nor advisable from a security one.3

This lack of information from the group, which it had previously given prior to al-Baghdadi’s elevation, led to questions regarding who was actually at the head of the organization.a As a result, although several sources commented on different possibilities, confirmation from the U.S. government was not immediately forthcoming.4 b Then, on March 17, 2020, the U.S. government issued its perspective on the issue when it designated an individual by the name of Amir Muhammad Sa’id ‘Abd-al-Rahman al-Mawlac as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, indicating that he has “succeeded [al-Baghdadi] to become the leader of ISIS.”5 Al-Mawla had been one of the individuals previously tagged as a possible successor, although at least one insider suggested he was “lower in rank in the administration as well as finance and military leadership.”6

Read more at CTC Sentinel

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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