Even with its head severed, Islamic State may continue to bite

‘Last night’s operation took a major terrorist leader off the battlefield, and it sent a strong message to terrorists around the world: We will come after you and find you.’

With these words, President Biden announced a US special forces counterterrorism operation that resulted in the death of Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi in Syria’s Idlib province on 3 February. Also known as Haji Abdullah, al-Qurayshi killed himself and his family with an explosive device as US forces, supported by the Kurdish Syrian Defence Forces, raided the multi-storey house where he was hiding in the village of Atme, near the Turkish border. The Pentagon described al-Qurayshi as a very hands-on leader keen to restore the lethality and higher operational tempo IS once enjoyed, and said his death was a significant blow to the terror group.

Al-Qurayshi came to power in 2019, following the death of his predecessor in almost identical circumstances. Three years ago, as US special forces approached his hideout in Idlib province, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi detonated a suicide vest, killing himself and his two children. Both IS leaders were denounced as cowards by the US presidents who authorised the raids.

The al-Qurayshi raid continues the decapitation strikes—colloquially described as cutting off the head of the snake—that were a key element of US counterterrorism strategy in the global war on terror. Such strikes have long been part of the military arsenal, especially in counterinsurgency, but how successful they are as a counterterrorism tool is not straightforward.

The raids on the two IS leaders were preceded by assassinations of key al-Qaeda figures, including Osama and Hamza bin Laden, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader Anwar al-Awlaki, and IS-forerunner al-Qaeda in Iraq’s Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. These strikes have often involved civilian casualties. The US says it sets out to minimise such casualties, and the risk to its own forces, with an assessment it refers to as a calculated risk matrix which includes the use of drones or special forces.

Biden’s message after al-Qurayshi’s killing struck a familiar tone, presenting the operation as a necessary one carried out with precision and ethical foresight to minimise civilian casualties. The curious mix of showing teeth to bite off the snake’s head while using declaredly measured force is in line with tradition. It’s reminiscent of President Barack Obama’s approach and his 2011 statement that the world was ‘a better place because of the death of Osama bin Laden’. This framing stands in stark contrast to President Donald Trump’s self-congratulatory claims that ‘Baghdadi died like a dog’ and his bizarre tweet of a medal ceremony for Conan, the military dog involved in that raid, with its picture superimposed on the face a decorated Vietnam veteran.

January’s Hasakah prison break demonstrated that IS has planning capability and a leadership structure functional enough to execute large operations with dire consequences. Yet, rather than constituting a knee-jerk response to this attack, the Pentagon said the raid was the product of months of careful planning and risk assessment, relied on strong partner structures in the region and was designed to minimise civilian casualties. Civilians are said to have been killed in the latest raid when al-Qurayshi detonated his explosive device and in a firefight started by his lieutenant and wife.

The approach is clearly much more considered than it was under Trump, but the assumption that it dealt IS a major blow indicates that the US is continuing down the same broad path that is not necessarily a forward-looking strategy.

Many analysts and scholars are rightly sceptical of the effectiveness of leadership decapitation—in particular as a counterterrorism strategy to defeat or substantially incapacitate an adversary. Even as a tactic in a wider strategic toolkit, it has limits. The extent to which such operations destabilise a group is very context- and time-sensitive. It depends on the leader’s charisma and influence and the group’s aims and organisational make-up, especially how hierarchical and centralised its internal structure is, alongside variables in the surrounding conditions.

It would be rare for the killing of a single leader to spell the demise of a terrorist group, and even less likely in a multi-generational movement like jihadism whose enduring ideological cause and appeal ensure a steady supporter base. So far, IS has shown an ability to adapt. The current phase of its trajectory—from jihadi proto-state with centralised territorial control to a decentralised model with local affiliates—affords IS greater overall resilience, with the ability to mitigate losses in one area.

Moreover, on the modern jihadi battlefield, martyrdom is an article of faith as much as an act of strategic pragmatism. The death of a leader would be anticipated with at least some forethought and contingency planning, if not a detailed succession strategy. Al-Qurayshi was the nom de guerre of Amir Muhammad Said Abdel-Rahman al-Mawla, a 45-year-old Iraqi who served in Saddam Hussein’s military before joining al-Qaeda in Iraq following the US invasion. He had been known to US forces since 2008 when, as an AQI judge, he was captured and imprisoned. As a graduate of the finishing school for extremists that was Camp Bucca, plus a degree in Islamic jurisprudence from a theology seminary in Mosul, his credentials mirrored those of the first IS leader, al-Baghdadi.

When al-Qurayshi assumed the IS leadership, there was debate on why he was chosen and what controversy surrounding his heritage might mean for the future of IS leadership and which lineage the new leader may come from. Yet, as scholars of IS’s military strategy point out it is, like its media strategy, ‘intentional, broad, comprehensive and most of all—patient.’

This means that al-Qurayshi’s death is likely bring an element of uncertainty and instability to IS temporarily and leave a dent in the group’s operational capabilities in at least Syria and Iraq. Further strikes may follow to target the tiers of leadership below him. Yet the operation is unlikely to have an enduring impact on the group’s command structure and overall operations. A Pentagon report from February 2020 came to that conclusion after al-Baghdadi’s death.

This gives Biden’s threat less bite; it appears more as a talking point to project ongoing faith in America’s counterterrorism capability from ‘over the horizon’. Considering the strategic and humanitarian implications of the Hasakah battle, one author’s point that the ‘the gap between disaster and triumph was narrow’ seems apt beyond that particular attack.

Curiously, in nature a snake’s head can still bite when it is no longer attached to its body.