An American military operation resulted in the suicide of the new leader of ISIS on February 3, 2022. The terror leader “is no more,” President Joe Biden said in a speech to Americans afterward. The message that the incident sends to other terrorists throughout the world, Biden said, is that the United States is prepared to “come after you and find you.”
During a raid on an Islamic State compound in northwest Syria, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi reportedly blew himself up, killing several children and adult family members in the blast, according to local first responder sources. U.S. military sources said that Special Forces personnel rescued 10 other civilians from the building.
Special Forces additionally confiscated electronic devices from the encampment. The information recovered will reportedly assist the U.S. in finding and taking the fight to additional ISIS strongholds.
History repeats itself
U.S. forces under the previous administration raided the compound of then-ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi late in 2019, in almost the same geographic location as the raid on al-Qurayshi. After al-Baghdadi died subsequent to detonating his suicide belt, the Iraq-born Qurayshi took over leadership of the terror group. Under Qurayshi’s direction in recent years, ISIS fighters conducted a campaign of genocide against the Yazidi minority in the region, among other crimes against humanity.
A terror mastermind
Al-Qurayshi, believed to have been born in 1976, was also reportedly a graduate in Quranic studies from Mosul University in Iraq who took up arms as a member of ISIS in about 2007. Taken into custody by American forces the following year, he is believed by intelligence sources to have disclosed to the U.S. the identities of some two dozen other members of ISIS. Media reports have declared him the “architect” of the Yazidi genocide, and he seems to have been promoted to the position of al-Baghdadi’s second in command by 2018.
After Qurayshi’s death, experts noted that his successor was likely to be another Iraqi in the group’s leadership structure. While declared by the U.S. as defeated a few years ago, ISIS has recently shown that it is regaining strength, determination, and numbers.
Key allies in the battle against ISIS
In his address to the nation, Biden additionally gave credit to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a majority-Kurdish fighting operation that has given extensive manpower aid to the U.S. and other Western nations in the struggle against ISIS.
Formed with extensive U.S. support in 2015 after four years of the continuing civil war in Syria, the SDF has played a key role in combating the proliferation of ISIS in the region. American forces have provided military aid and training to the group in tactical issues such as calling in airstrikes. In 2017, American-backed SDF fighters took over Raqqa, the “de facto capital” of ISIS in Syria, and announced a “total liberation” of the city.
And it was the SDF whose fighters dealt what looked like the decisive blow to ISIS in March 2019, when they recaptured the last significant patch of territory held by the self-declared ISIS “caliphate.”
After that victory, the SDF used their momentum to establish themselves along a wide swath of autonomous territory across Syria’s northeast, naming their stronghold Rojava. They have since put in place their own governing institutions in the area.
Even soon after the SDF and the U.S. had declared victory in 2019, though, ISIS was already showing signs of its resurgence.
The operation that took out Qurayshi took place only days after ISIS fighters overpowered the staff of a prison in Hasaka, in the northeast of Syria. That prison changed hands again when SDF forces in turn overpowered the ISIS militants holed up inside. The intense fighting, which flowed over into nearby residential streets, was the most extreme incident involving U.S. troops in urban combat since the ISIS was subdued in 2019.
A complex organization
So who are the members of the SDF?
Although primarily composed of Kurds, the group includes a number of Arabs, Armenians, and Assyrians among its troops. Notably, women often fight alongside men within the relatively egalitarian structure of the SDF.
According to the European Council on Foreign Relations, the SDF is hoping for eventual international recognition of its locally run, de facto Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria (AANES).
This multi-ethnic, loosely knit organization has proved to be the West’s chief ally in the fight against ISIS. Its leadership is drawn mainly from the YPG (Kurdish People’s Protection Units), formed in 2012 by a group of veterans newly returned to Syria from the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party).
The PKK is a militant group that traces its origins back to the 1970s. The PKK’s original program included the promotion of violence to achieve independence for the region’s Kurds, and in recent years it has been officially declared a terror organization by the U.S., the European Union, and Turkey, which has expressed sometimes violent opposition to any notion of Kurdish independence.
The SDF has also drawn criticism from the PKK for its policy of concluding oil deals with the U.S., as well as for its attempt to participate in United Nations-facilitated dialogue on the future of war-torn Syria.
Meanwhile, according to the European Council, the SDF has filled an infrastructure and leadership vacuum in northern Syria, with the oil revenues flowing from the lands it occupies, allowing it to pay good wages to workers from local majority-Arab communities. However, continued oil money is, in practical terms, contingent on the continued ability of the U.S. to shore up this ally by blocking Russia from its oil-rich territories.
Regardless of its help to the U.S. in prosecuting the war against ISIS, it seems unlikely, given current Turkish, Syrian, and Russian opposition to its nationalist goals, that the SDF will achieve its hoped-for recognition any time soon, if ever.