Islamic State Leader Is Killed in Fighting, Terrorist Group Says

Islamic State said Wednesday that its top leader died recently in fighting, less than a year after the terrorist group’s previous commander was killed during a U.S. military raid in Syria.

The group’s spokesman said that leader Abu al-Hasan al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi is dead but gave no other details, according to an audio statement transcribed by SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist organizations. The successor to the leadership role is Abu al-Husayn al-Husayni al-Qurayshi. Both names are noms de guerre.

The U.S. military’s Central Command said the operation that killed the former Islamic State leader was carried out in mid-October by the rebel Free Syrian Army in Daraa province in southern Syria. CENTCOM spokesman Joe Buccino said the killing was “another blow to ISIS,” using an acronym for Islamic State.

The White House said the U.S. wasn’t involved in the operation. “It was not the result of any U.S. action,” White House press secretary

Karine Jean-Pierre

told reporters on Wednesday in Washington.

Islamic State has managed to regroup and sustain a deadly insurgency in Syria and Iraq despite years of military operations designed to crush it. The militant group launched a prison break in northeastern Syria in January that triggered days of street-to-street fighting with Syrian militia fighters and U.S. soldiers. More than 500 people died in the attack and ensuing battle in the city of Hasakah.

The previous leader of Islamic State, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, killed himself days later during a U.S. commando raid in Idlib province in northwestern Syria, in an operation announced by President Biden.

Little is known about either the new leader appointed earlier this year or the one named on Wednesday. The fact that both men had little public profile shows how the group has declined since the peak of its influence, which emerged during civil wars in Iraq and Syria.

Islamic State seized control of a swath of territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014, imposing its violent form of religious rule over millions of people and using the area as a base to launch a global campaign of terrorist attacks.

The U.S. and its Syrian and Iraqi partner forces launched a military campaign to defeat the group that succeeded in dislodging the militants from their last foothold of territory in 2019. Islamic State has persisted as an insurgent group ever since, carrying out hit and run attacks on Syrian and Iraqi security forces and suicide attacks on civilians.

The January attack on the prison in Hasakah proved the organization’s ability to carry out complex and deadly attacks. The organization has used prison breaks to replenish its ranks, Western officials say.

The group has increased attacks in Syria this year, compared with the same period last year, according to a Department of Defense Inspector General report published earlier in November. At the same time, the group carried out fewer attacks during the same period in Iraq, the report said.

Some 6,000 to 10,000 Islamic State fighters remain in Iraq and Syria, down from as many as 18,000 two years ago, the report said.

The recent death and capture of a series of Islamic State leaders, including two of its top leaders in a single year, marked a series of setbacks that hindered its chances of regenerating over the long term, analysts said.

“Strategically speaking it’s been an awful year for the Islamic State and one that has not just been confined to Syria but Iraq as well, and this is pretty bad news for it,” said Charlie Winter, chief research officer at ExTrac, an intelligence consultancy.

Islamic State’s announcement of a new leader comes at a perilous moment for the U.S.-backed campaign against Islamic State. A campaign of airstrikes by Turkey on Kurdish fighters in Syria caused the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces to pause operations against Islamic State, the SDF said this week. The Pentagon said on Tuesday that it had reduced the number of patrols in Syria as a result of the Turkish airstrikes.

Turkey has blamed Kurdish militants for a bombing in Istanbul that killed six people earlier in November. The SDF includes members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a militant group that both Turkey and the U.S. regard as a terrorist organization. The PKK and its Syrian offshoots have denied any connection to the Istanbul bombing.

Some 900 U.S. soldiers are stationed in Syria working alongside the SDF.

A U.S. drone strike killed Maher al-Agal, one of Islamic State’s top five leaders, in Syria in July, U.S. officials said.

Andrew Restuccia contributed to this article.

Write to Jared Malsin at [email protected]

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