Mystery of IS geography: Command in Syria, Iraq and influence in Africa

Islamic State fighters watching a publication of the organization entitled Hayat al-Jihad (The Life of Jihad) (the group’s West Africa Telegram account)

Islamic State fighters watching a publication of the organization entitled Hayat al-Jihad (The Life of Jihad) (the group’s West Africa Telegram account)


Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli

Periodically, at the end of each week, the Islamic State (IS) group issues statistics on the number of military and security operations carried out by its cells in its areas of deployment around the world.

While Syria and Iraq have been absent at the top of the list of these operations for long periods, often with African countries at the forefront, IS’ main leadership has been stationed in Syria and Iraq since its founding was announced until the present day.

The recently killed IS leader in southern Syria, known as Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, was the organization’s third, and fate brought him together with his predecessors of IS leaders who hailed from Iraq but were killed in security operations in Syria.

In this report, Enab Baladi discusses with researchers and specialists the reasons IS maintains its leadership stationed in Syria and Iraq, noting that its military weight is concentrated on the African continent.

IS roots in Iraq

With IS announcing the death of its leader, known as Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, and the appointment of Abu al-Hussein al-Hashimi al-Qurashi as his successor, there were pledges of allegiance (Baya’ah) to the new leader by IS-affiliated elements and cells around the world.

The most recent of these Baya’ahs (pledges of allegiance) came in a video recording that the organization posted on its official Telegram account, showing the nine groups, each of which includes a few individuals, pledging allegiance to the new IS leader.

The organization’s visual edition, “Allah Will Certainly Help Those Who Stand Up for Him,” included the Baya’ah of IS fighters in West Africa, or what IS calls Wilayat al-Sahel (The Sahel Province).

Large numbers (more than a hundred) of IS fighters have appeared in the West African edition announcing their support for the new Islamic State leader. The background of the video recording was not concealed in the organization’s release coming from Africa, contrary to its security procedures in Syria and Iraq to prevent the detection of fighters’ locations using photographs and video recordings.

The comparison between the Baya’ahs (pledges of allegiance) of IS fighters coming from Africa and their counterparts in Iraq and Syria raises the question of how comfortable these groups are moving about in African countries and the difficulties they face in Syria and Iraq, which were, and may still be, where the IS top-tier leadership is stationed.

Sam Heller, a researcher at the Century International Foundation for international research and policy specializing in Syrian affairs, told Enab Baladi that IS’ adherence to a centralized leadership based in Syria and Iraq is due to its deep-rooted presence in Iraq since its inception.

Secondly, and with regard to Syria, Heller argues that IS has treated Syria from the outset as being linked to Iraq at two levels, the first as home to the facilitation and support networks of the Iraqi IS branch and the second as an effective focal point for the organization.

Heller referred to IS’ “invasion” of the Syrian-Iraqi border and its declaration of its “caliphate” there to date, and that it continues to treat the two countries as a partially integrated space and views this space as its main focus.

Given this history, it is logical that the organization’s most experienced cadres come from Iraq and Syria, who have been with the organization for the longest period, and are also fully aware of the organization’s working methods inside or even outside Iraq and Syria.

In light of the foregoing, Sam Heller considers that the organization’s cadres launched with its launch in Syria and Iraq are, to date, the “most experienced.”

To be from “Qurashi” lineage

Through security operations to pursue the organization’s leaders over the past years, the United States has been able to kill two IS leaders who were taking a hideout in northwestern Syria.

Meanwhile, the last IS leader was killed by the local opposition factions in south Syria during a security campaign launched against his groups in the city of Jasim.

The common denominator among these leaders is that they were leaders of the organization and that their names bore two common last names, al-Hashimi, and al-Qurashi, which led the researcher in the affairs of jihadist groups, Khalil al-Miqdad, to believe that it is an indication of how IS leaders were selected.

Al-Miqdad told Enab Baladi that the Islamic State was established mainly on the ruins of al-Qaeda in Iraq, under the wing of influential Iraqi jihadist leaders in the jihadist wing.

With growing IS influence in Iraq, it became necessary for the organization to take the form of a “state,” according to al-Miqdad, which requires a leader who distinguishes the organization from old jihadist factions and groups in order to contain jihadist groups in the region.

According to al-Miqdad, the fact that an IS leader who bears the al-Qurashi al-Hashimi last name carries ideological connotations for its affiliates, in addition to organizational and political connotations, especially since IS has been concerned with the issue of “loyalty and non-objection” since its establishment.

Therefore, the order of the organization’s priorities in choosing its leader is creed (Aqidah) in the first place, that he be of Hashimi Qurashi lineage in the second place, and being an Arab in the third place.

The use of the al-Qurashi al-Hashimi last name is based on the origin of the Prophet Muhammad. Thus, IS leaders’ use of these last names suggests that they are part of Prophet Muhammad’s lineage.

The region witnessed the “beginning of jihad”

In view of the opinion of political and sociological researcher Pr. Ammar Ali al-Hassan that was included in his book A Quasi-State: The Whole Story of ISIS, the establishment of the organization brought to mind the phenomenon of the Arab-Afghans whose countries refused to receive them after participating with their countries’ consent in the fight against the collapsed Soviet Union, spreading all over the globe afterwards.

According to the book, the core of the group consisted of fighters who relocated to Iraq after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan and formed an organization “with more than 12,000 fighters”, which was a strong start for the army of the Islamic State of Iraq, which represented a powerful push towards the establishment of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The British researcher specializing in jihadist groups, Kyle Orton, linked, during an interview with Enab Baladi, IS’ adherence to a centralized leadership based in Syria and Iraq to ​​what he called “the emergence of jihad in the region.”

He said that IS still preferred to retain Iraq and Syria as its center based on two broad, interconnected sets of practical and ideological reasons.

The first of these reasons is IS’ substantial expansion in Iraq despite its establishment in Afghanistan in 1999, and then the expansion in Syria demonstrated on a basic practical level that IS would not be able to transfer all its forces from Iraq and Syria to Africa or elsewhere.

It would also be rather hazardous for the IS commanders and soldiers to start exiting Syria and Iraq in large numbers.

Furthermore, Orton added that the organization itself brings together a global project that should assist its “revolutionary” program and ultimately lead to its “national” program.

Thus, the organization will never abandon the region in which its “jihad” began or “the base from which it is supposed to spread throughout the world,” not least because it has made great progress from its point of view; it is now stronger than it was when it reached Iraq in 2002.

Importance of geography

The book A Quasi-State, to which we referred earlier, went further to talk about introducing the Sykes-Picot’s borders into a new phase when it set out to accomplish what it calls the Caliphate project, which translates in the mind of IS leaders to bring down the national state in the Arab and Islamic world, dissolve the borders, and return to the geography of the Islamic Empire.

The book’s discussion of what geography means to IS leaders and decision-makers spiked the interest of British researcher Kyle Orton, who considered the location of Iraq and Syria to be more useful for the organization’s “global mission.”

He added that Syria and Iraq constitute a “central node” in the Middle East, especially since they have land borders with Turkey and are, therefore, close to Europe. This means that IS will be able to have access to recruits and move sources of money globally more easily, according to Orton.

In the same vein, Orton noted the importance of Syria and Iraq at the doctrinal level; Iraq and Syria were considered sacred in ideological terms, as they were the areas where Islam’s early history had emerged.

These lands cannot be left to those whom IS considers “infidels” (Kuffar), in addition to being areas where the “end of time” is supposed to be according to ideology-driven IS, says Orton.

He believes that all indications point out that IS will never leave its center in Iraq and Syria, even if it expands outside these countries.

IS remote branches

During the years that followed the decline of its influence in Syria, before it faded, the organization’s operations extended to many countries, most of which were African countries. But it also spread to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.

IS-affiliated cell proliferation was not the only indication of the organization’s influence; rather, such influence was reflected in targeting operations such as those carried out in Afghanistan on 12 December, which affected Chinese diplomats and businessmen who were staying in a hotel in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

Researcher Sam Heller considers that the parent organization trained those “branches to operate more effectively and similar to the identity of the original Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

At the same time, however, Heller does not believe that IS affiliates outside Syria and Iraq have been socialized and integrated into the organization as its longtime Iraqi-Syrian cadres did.

Speaking on the reasons for that, he said that this was due to new affiliates’ lack of “deep experience” and history with what has been termed the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria Veterans Organization,” as well as the fact that IS’ cadres outside Syria and Iraq are not located at the center of the organization’s cross-border networks previously operating from Syria and Iraq.

Regarding the possibility of appointing the leaders of the organization outside Syria and Iraq, Heller said that such a process may usually require a greater formation of its networks and structures, which is difficult to implement at the moment.

Since the beginning of the month… Where were IS’ operations concentrated?

During the last week, between 9 and 16 December, the Islamic State (IS) carried out 19 operations in areas where its troops and cells are deployed around the world. Syria was ranked first in the global list of IS-perpetrated operations with five targets.

While Iraq was ranked penultimate, these operations did not result in serious losses to IS enemies in the region and were limited to the killing and wounding of elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria and others from the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces and the Iraqi Army.

The damages of these operations were concentrated in what IS calls Wilayat al-Sahel (the Sahel Province) in West Africa, where its fighters carried out one operation that resulted in the death and injury of a 100 of its old ally’s elements, al-Qaeda, in Mali, West Africa.

In the week before, IS’ operations in the areas of deployment of its cells around the world accounted for 17 operations, including two operations in Syria and 3 in Iraq.

As a result of the operations, which took place in the Syrian governorate of Deir Ezzor, the regions of the Tigris, Salah al-Din, and the vicinity of Baghdad in Iraq, 13 people were killed among the SDF forces in Syria, the Iraqi Army, and the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq.

IS Emirs

On 27 October 2019, the US military targeted the leader and founder of the Islamic State (IS) organization, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, during a security operation in Idlib, northwestern Syria.

Reuters quoted an unnamed official as saying that the operation targeted al-Baghdadi, while an army official told Newsweek magazine at the time that al-Baghdadi was killed during the said operation.

On 3 February, US President Joe Biden announced the death of the second IS leader, Abdullah Qardash, known as Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi.

At the time, Biden said in a statement, “US military forces in northwest Syria successfully undertook a counterterrorism operation to protect the American people and our allies and make the world a safer place; we have taken off the battlefield Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi—the leader of ISIS.”

On 30 November, IS announced the death of its leader, Abu Hasan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, and appointed Abu Hussein al-Hashimi al-Qurashi as his successor.

The announcement was made during an audio speech by the IS spokesperson, Abu Omar al-Muhajir, which was published on IS’ official Telegram accounts on 30 November.

During his audio speech titled Fal-Yaqtulu Wa-Yuqtalu (Let Them Kill and Be Killed), al-Muhajir did not specify where, when, or how the Islamic State’s leader was killed.

A few hours later, the US Central Command (CENTCOM) announced the killing of an IS leader during battles between the latter and Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters in southern Syria.

The CENTCOM announcement came in a press release on its official website, in which it stated that Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, the IS leader, was killed in mid-October.

Following the killing of Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi, whose identity was unknown, IS appointed a successor with the nickname “Abu al-Hussein al-Hashimi (whose identity is also unknown). He is the fourth leader of the Islamic State (IS) since its establishment was announced to date.



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