BEIRUT — The identity of the leader of the Islamic State group that was killed in an American raid in northwest Syria overnight is a mystery. There are no photos or videos.
His death was in the rebel-held Idlib Province where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, his predecessor, was killed. This is some distance from the main theaters of eastern Syria and Iraq, where the group used to hold vast swathes of territory under a self-declared ‘caliphate. He was a veteran militant who fought in Iraq since 2003. After al-Baghdadi’s death in an October 2019 raid, he assumed the command of IS. He was able to guide the remnants of the group as they regrouped after the fall of the caliphate. They then moved underground to wage insurgency against the government in Syria and Iraq.
Islamic State militants are responsible for more high-profile attacks
After years of low-level ambushes and hit-and-run attacks, IS militants began to strike harder, more publically visible attacks. The IS militants attacked a prison in northeast Syria last month to release their comrades. This led to a 10-day battle with Kurdish-led forces, which left around 500 people dead.
President Joe Biden stated that al-Qurayshi was directly liable for the prison strike and the mass killings in Iraq of the Yazidi population in 2014.
He was responsible for the brutal attack on a northeast Syria prison. Biden stated Thursday that he was responsible for the Yazidi genocide. “We all recall the heart-wrenching stories of mass massacres that decimated entire villages and thousands of young girls who were sold into slavery or raped as a weapon in war,” Biden said Thursday.
It is not clear if al-Qurayshi’s death will end the group’s momentum.
His real name was Amir Mohammed Saeed Abdul-Rahman al-Mawla. He was an Iraqi in his 40s who was born in 1976. It is believed that he was an ethnic Turkman from Tel Afar, a northern Iraqi city. He received a degree from the University of Mosul in Islamic law.
When he became IS’s “caliph”, he adopted the nickname al-Qurayshi, implying that he, just like his predecessor, had claimed connections to the tribe of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
Al-Qurayshi, like his predecessor, was also killed in Barisha village just 24 km (15 miles) away. His final days were spent in Idlib province where he was held by insurgents hostile to IS.
He was in Atmeh, a three-story home near the border to Turkey. According to first responders, he was killed along with 12 others in the raid on his house, which took place early Thursday morning.
Few people knew the identity of the family that was renting the house after the raid. According to the Journalists, neighbors reported that the man who lived on top of the house with his family was Abu Ahmad, a Syrian refugee from Aleppo. The bombed house contained children’s toys, a crib, and religious books including a biography about Prophet Mohammad.
The last stronghold of the rebels in Syria is Idlib. It’s home to three million people. Many have been displaced by civil war. This makes it easy for strangers and others to blend in. Al-Qurayshi chose to surround the house with olive trees to keep it as far from any eyes as possible.
How the U.S. raid played out
Wednesday night at midnight, helicopters carrying U.S. Special Forces arrived in the area and closed the door on the house.
“If you don’t leave, we have orders. We will launch missiles at the house. “There are drones overhead,” could be heard a man in Iraqi speaking through a loudspeaker. A social media audio was shared.
Later, an explosion rocked the area and destroyed much of the top floor.
The opposition’s Syrian Civil Defense (also known as White Helmets) released videos showing a paramedic hurrying a little girl out of her house to an ambulance. Later, a photo circulated online showing a little girl aged five and with bloody eyes.
The girl said that her father and mother were killed. She was rescued by paramedics.
It wasn’t clear if this girl was Al-Qurayshi’s daughter.
Al-Arabiya TV suggested that three of the four victims of the raid may have been wives of the leader of the extremist group. Extremists are allowed to marry up to four women. This is according to Muslim tradition.
Al-Qurayshi, who has been in command of IS since then, is on the U.S. wanted list along with other regional governments that are fighting extremists. Al-Qurayshi did not make any public appearances and seldom released audio recordings. It is unknown how much he influenced the operations of the group and whether he had any successors.
According to the U.S., al-Qurayshi was a key player in the targeting of Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority.
Al-Qurayshi was designated a Specially Designated Terrorist by the State Department on March 18, 2020. The reward for information leading to the identification or location of al-Qurayshi was doubled by the U.S. a few months later to $10 million. Al-Qurayshi was also known as Abdullah Qaradash and Abu Omar al-Turkmani, two other noms of guerre.
According to the U.S. Treasury Department, al-Qurayshi was responsible for justifying the trafficking, abduction and slaughter of Yazidi members in Iraq and overseeing the group’s global operations. The group saw thousands of Yazidi men killed and thousands of Yazidi women being taken as slaves. This is what rights groups call a crime against genocide.
Al-Qurayshi started his militant work after Saddam Hussein, the former dictator of Iraq, was ousted from power. Al-Qurayshi joined al-Qaida, a terrorist group in Iraq, one year after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
In 2004, Al-Qurayshi was detained by U.S. soldiers in Mosul. He was kept there for two years. Al-Baghdadi appointed him as his top security henchman during his imprisonment.
Al-Zarqawi died in a U.S. attack in 2006. In 2006, al-Qurayshi was made a senior official in the successor group to al-Qaida, the Islamic State in Iraq. This group was transformed under al-Baghdadi into the Islamic State group.
Al-Qurayshi was a senior leader in the IS leadership after it overthrew much of northern and eastern Syria, northern Iraq, and most of northern Syria. Al-Qurayshi fled to hiding after the collapse of the caliphate in the long war in Syria and Iraq.