Caliphs of the Shadows: The Islamic State’s Leaders Post-Mawla- 2

Table 1: The Islamic State’s Caliphs

The death of Abu Ibrahim, however, has essentially marked the end of the era of the group’s ‘known caliphs.’ Since his death, two successors have already been appointed and killed: namely, Abu al-Hasan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi and Abu al-Husayn al-Husayni al-Qurashi, both of whom only lasted several months each and similarly made no public appearances and released no audio messages of their own. Moreover, the U.S. government has not come forward to affirm the identity of either of these figures, and the organization has had little to say about who they were.

This article explores in more depth what is known about these two successors to Abu Ibrahim and the circumstances surrounding their deaths, and considers the future of the organization in light of the seeming rapid rate at which the group’s caliphs are being eliminated.

Abu al-Hasan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi
If there is one thing that can be ascertained with certainty regarding Abu al-Hasan’s identity, it is who he was definitely not. Shortly after the killing of Abu Ibrahim and prior to the announcement of Abu al-Hasan’s appointment, the journalist Hassan Hassan published an article for New Lines Magazine suggesting that the likely successor would be one Bashar Khattab Ghazal al-Sumaida’i.9 According to Hassan, al-Sumaida’i joined the Islamic State in 2013 and had previously been a member of the Iraqi jihadi group Ansar al-Islam, which is now largely confined to northwest Syria where it operates as a small independent faction under the watch of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). In addition, Hassan said that al-Sumaida’i served in a judicial capacity and had been close to Abu Ibrahim, though he had been based in Turkey for some time before returning to Syria in 2021.10

While this account of Sumaida’i was interesting, his supposed identity as Abu Ibrahim’s successor was never affirmed by U.S. intelligence, and doubts about the story began to emerge after Turkey arrested Sumaida’i in May 2022. Despite initial hype that Turkey had captured the Islamic State caliph,d Turkish authorities were subsequently unable to confirm that this figure was in fact Abu al-Hasan, but perhaps more importantly, the Islamic State released an editorial in its Al Naba newsletter in which the group mocked unspecified “analysts” for holding to fanciful wishes and hopes and trying to prove them to be true.11 The editorial gave as an example those who hoped that the caliph had been taken prisoner, and then added after mention of the caliph: “may God protect him.”12

The implication of these words was clear: Abu al-Hasan had not been taken prisoner by Turkey. If he had been taken prisoner, the group would likely have said so and either have launched a campaign to free him if it had believed that it was feasible to free him, or have simply appointed a successor, thus transferring the position of the caliph to another individual. This dual choice with regard to the fate of an imprisoned caliph derives from Islamic jurisprudence,13 and there is no reason to suppose the Islamic State would deviate from these norms with regards to its own caliphs.e

Doubts about the identification of Abu al-Hasan with al-Sumaida’i were further solidified by the surprise announcement by the Islamic State on November 30, 2022, about the death of Abu al-Hasan and the appointment of his successor Abu al-Husayn.14 The announcement came via an audio message of then spokesman Abu Omar al-Muhajir on al-Furqan Media, and said little about the precise circumstances of his death beyond the fact that Abu al-Hasan died a violent death through fighting the “enemies of God.”

Hours later, however, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) released a statement claiming that Abu al-Hasan had been killed in mid-October 2022 in a clash with the “Free Syrian Army” in Syria’s southern province of Dar‘a, which is officially under Syrian government control.15 The CENTCOM statement did not capture the full nuance in that it was not the “Free Syrian Army” that killed Abu al-Hasan but rather, as will be outlined below, local militiamen, some of whom may have previously been part of the “Free Syrian Army”-brand insurgent groups that received backing from the United States, some European states, Jordan, and Gulf countries.16

An analysis by this author of local reports from the time suggests that Abu al-Hasan was likely killed during an offensive launched by local militiamen against Islamic State cells in the north Dar‘a countryside town of Jasim,17 a conclusion also reached by the United Nations.18 This offensive was backed by artillery support from the Syrian army, and only came about after the head of Syrian military intelligence in the province seriously threatened to storm the town if action was not taken in cooperation with government forces against Islamic State cells, whose presence was repeatedly doubted in pro-opposition activist media.19 It seems likely that neither the Syrian government nor the local militiamen were aware or certain that Abu al-Hasan had been killed during this offensive. Rather Arabic-language reports at the time only noted that an individual going by the names of “(Abu) Abd al-Rahman al-Iraqi” and “Sayf Baghdad” (“Sword of Baghdad”) had been killed.20 f While U.S. intelligence may have received some information at the time suggesting Abu al-Hasan had been killed, it probably could not verify the details and thus waited for the Islamic State’s own announcement for full confirmation.

Although the precise details of Abu al-Hasan’s apparent demise in the Jasim offensive have not been confirmed by the Islamic State, the group has nonetheless confirmed the broader point that Abu al-Hasan was killed in southern Syria fighting against forces that had backing from the Syrian government. In the announcement of Abu al-Husayn’s death, Abu Hudhayfa al-Ansari confirmed that Abu al-Hasan had been based in southern Syria, where he fought against the “Nusayris” (a derogatory term for Alawites, and thus referring to the Syrian government and its forces) and their “agents” (i.e. local militiamen working with the Syrian government) and was subsequently killed.21

All of these elements provide confirmation that Abu al-Hasan was not al-Sumaida‘i. In response to the growing doubts following the announcement of Abu al-Hasan’s death, Hassan and other defenders of the al-Sumaida’i theory suggested that Abu al-Hasan was originally al-Sumaida‘i but that the identity was transferred to another person following al-Sumaida‘i’s capture. There is little basis to accept this hypothesis. Indeed, the Islamic State implicitly mocked it in an editorial released after Abu al-Hasan’s death,22 stating that if the group had wanted, it could have continued using Abu al-Hasan’s name for the caliph after his demise, just as it could have continued using the name of the previous spokesman Abu Hamza al-Qurashi, the killing of whom had not been claimed by any side and was only revealed to the outside world via Abu Omar al-Muhajir in the announcement of the appointment of Abu al-Hasan as successor to Abu Ibrahim.23

Yet, the upshot of all the foregoing is simply to establish a negative: that Abu al-Hasan was not al-Sumaida‘i. Establishing this negative reveals virtually nothing about who Abu al-Hasan actually was. To date, there are only two other accounts as to who he might have been, with nothing to provide confirmation either way. One claim is that Abu al-Hasan was a brother of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,24 while another account offered by the journalist Wa’il ‘Isam claims that Abu al-Hasan’s real name was Nour Karim Mutni, originally from the Albu ‘Ubayd tribe in Rawa in western Anbar.25

According to Wa’il’s account, Mutni’s career in jihadism began after his brother and some other relatives were killed in the al-‘Adhamiya neighborhood in Baghdad in 2005 by the “Wolf Brigade,” which was affiliated with the Interior Ministry and gained notoriety for sectarian violence against Sunnis.26 Initially working in logistical support, Mutni became involved in the administration of the Islamic State’s “Baghdad wilaya” (Baghdad province), and thus, according to Wa’il, acquired the nickname of “Sword of Baghdad,” which was one of the nicknames of an “(Abu) ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Iraqi,” killed during the Jasim offensive and has been identified with Abu al-Hasan. There is little information as to Mutni’s career in the Islamic State following his involvement in the administration of the Baghdad wilaya, except the claim in Wa’il’s reporting that he moved to the town of Albukamal on the border with Iraq in 2014.27

I chose to use a pseudonym for personal reasons. I’m a retired neurosurgeon living in a rural paradise and am at rest from the turbulent life of my profession. I lived in an era when resident trainees worked 120 hours a week–a form of bondage no longer permitted by law. I served as a Navy Seabee general surgeon during the unpleasantness in Viet Nam, and spent the remainder of my ten-year service as a neurosurgeon in a major naval regional medical center. I’ve lived in every section of the country, saw all the inhumanity of man to man, practiced in private settings large and small, the military, academia, and as a medical humanitarian in the Third World.