February 05, 2022
The killing of Daesh’s “caliph,” Abu Ibrahim Al-Quraishi, is a rare foreign policy achievement for US President Joe Biden. However, Quraishi was an unknowable ghost, even to thousands of Daesh recruits who declared personal loyalty to him, so his replacement by another obscure phantom may make little practical difference to the far-flung franchises of this globe-straddling movement.
Quraishi appears to have long planned to blast himself, his wife and their children to bloody fragments when he was inevitably discovered, offering us a grizzly reminder of the abominable excesses of this sick cult.
When Donald Trump announced the killing of Quraishi’s predecessor Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and claimed that Daesh had been “totally defeated,” terrorism experts ridiculed the self-evident shortsightedness of such an assertion. And so here we are today, with the conditions being replicated for Daesh to stage a spectacularly brutal comeback in numerous vulnerable states.
The scope and ambition of Daesh’s attack last month on Ghwayran prison in northeast Syria should have come as no surprise. Terrorist propaganda has long focused on “breaking the walls” of these vast, lightly defended jails, particularly as Daesh’s leadership was facing criticism and ridicule for abandoning its fighters and their family members in detention.
Given how many fighters were killed and how few escaped, the prison attack clearly wasn’t the success Daesh had hoped for — but even attempting such a bold operation was a propaganda coup. Jihadist chatrooms were full of praise for fighters besieged inside the prison, who fought to the end, perpetrating horrific atrocities in the process.
While Quraishi’s death will certainly have a crushing short-term impact on terrorist morale, jihadist voices are asserting that he was not in fact their leader, or that it was a privilege to die in the path of jihad, while stressing that Daesh’s war would continue regardless. Others ridiculed Quraishi for hiding out in the Idlib stronghold of the “infidel” Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, which was previously aligned with Al-Qaeda. Some even accused HTS of collaborating with the US in targeting Quraishi, noting that Al-Baghdadi was killed in almost exactly the same location. That Quraishi was living in an area under Turkish overlordship, next to a Turkish checkpoint, raises difficult questions as to whether Ankara was incompetent — or complicit.
Some elements within Daesh have always been resistant to Quraishi’s leadership, fueled by claims that he was an Iraqi Turkmen who faked his family’s lineage to the Prophet — and, more , that he “sang like a canary” while in US detention, leading directly to the liquidation of numerous jihadists.
The next wave of a new generation of region-wide terrorism and paramilitarism will probably engulf us equally rapidly, amid a forest of disintegrating states and chronic diplomatic negligence.
There is an upsurge in attacks in central provinces of Iraq, including Daesh breaking into a barracks near Baqubah and shooting 11 soldiers dead while they slept. Experts fear that Daesh’s capabilities are greater than previously thought, and that the group has been lying low, rebuilding its forces. Many of these attacks calculatedly target Iraqi Shiites, aiming to provoke an exaggerated and indiscriminate response by paramilitaries against Sunnis. Daesh knows that its surest route back to power is by triggering sectarian war, and Shiite paramilitaries have their own motivations for obligingly stirring up such tensions.
The youth of fighters involved in recent Daesh operations indicates that a new generation has been recruited in readiness for expansion. Jihadist websites were recently abuzz over a Daesh video depicting the indoctrination and military training of “cubs of the caliphate” in West Africa. The killing of several Lebanese youths fighting for Daesh in Iraq indicates that sophisticated recruitment efforts are underway. Several of these youths came from shockingly impoverished areas of Tripoli. We can never even begin to control the plague of terrorism without definitively addressing grinding poverty and shocking disparities in wealth, while millions languish in hellhole refugee camps with zero life-prospects other than the opportunity to pick up a gun and impose suffering upon others. We must not forget the terrible atrocities wreaked by terrorism upon the region’s complex patchwork of sects and ethnicities — Yazidis, Christians, Shiites, Jews, Sunnis and Kurds — shattering the region’s social fabric.
Effective counterterrorism strategies require decades of patient effort to render communities more resilient and address radical narratives, but diplomats ruefully acknowledge that current efforts are defined by extreme short-termism and failures of professionalism. Trump’s State Department was gutted of staff, and outflanked by sudden policy flip-flops, to the point of complete paralysis. Biden’s Afghanistan debacle was a gift for Daesh and Al-Qaeda and caused further plunges in diplomatic morale.
In a few short days in June 2014, Daesh engulfed half of Iraq. The next wave of a new generation of region-wide terrorism and paramilitarism will probably engulf us equally rapidly, amid a forest of disintegrating states and chronic diplomatic negligence. Terrorism experts mostly concur with this gloomy assessment, yet the institutions and state forces mandated to combat terrorism have never been weaker or more distracted. Meanwhile, Iran’s proxies in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere will continue fanning the flames of the Daesh menace in service of their own destructive agendas.
With Quraishi’s death, the opportunity presents itself for a consolidated crackdown upon terrorism and the causes of terrorism. Yet with all indications signaling that this opportunity is already being missed, the risk is that his death simply marks the passing-on of the terrorist baton to a new and ever-more radical and brutal generation.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.
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