When Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi died surrounded by helicopter-borne U.S. commandos on Thursday, he was leading a greatly diminished ISIS.
The group—which once commanded swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria—has struggled to regain any significant footing in the wake of its defeat following an intense five-year military campaign by an international coalition.
But it appears that it was Qurayshi’s role in a genocide in the Iraqi mountains more than five years earlier that led to elite U.S. troops coming for him in person.
Once spanning two countries and administering entire cities with its own government supported by thousands of international jihadist fighters, ISIS in defeat has turned to its earliest roots of petty crime, small cells operating on the fringes of Iraqi and Syrian Sunni communities and a deeply decentralised organisational structure to protect its leaders.
Qurayshi, whose real name was Amir Mohammed Saeed Abdul-Rahman al-Mawla died early Thursday morning after U.S. special operations troops surrounded his home in northern rebel-held Syria, where he and an assistant lived under assumed names. At least 13 women and children died alongside Qurayshi and a handful of bodyguards after U.S. officials claim someone inside the home detonated a suicide vest.
“Look at how [Qurayshi] was killed,” said Abu Sara, who has worked for both Iraqi intelligence and the U.S.-led coalition. “Living on a truck driver’s roof in Idlib, passing messages to his followers in Iraq, who called him the missing caliph because he had no policies or presence.”
It was a far cry from the days where the group was led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who died in a similar U.S. forces raid in 2019.
“He fit the description of caliph [ISIS] needed when Baghdadi was killed,” said Abu Sara. “He was Sharia law qualified with a Ph.D., good tribal connections and good relationship with Baghdadi. But outside the leadership of [ISIS] nobody knew him, and much of the leadership didn’t trust him anyway.”
By design, Qurayshi was an enigmatic figure within ISIS, whose leadership revolved around a core of hardline, often little-known and usually Iraqi leaders that have maintained the lowest of profiles going back to their roots opposing the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and occupation.
From a handful of profiles based on Iraqi documents and the release of a limited number of transcripts from his interrogation during US custody in 2008, the few things that can be discerned about Qurayshi are limited to his religious credentials, his role in orchestrating and justifying the Yazidi genocide and enslavement, and his brazen willingness to give his American interrogators detailed information about other ISIS members that led to the death or arrest of at least 20 comrades.
“We think he was getting rid of guys he didn’t like inside the ISIS command,” said Abu Sara about Qurayshi’s willingness to spill extremely detailed information about some colleagues. It appeared to work, said Abu Sara, as he quickly rose within the ISIS ranks he’d helped decimate after his release in 2009.
It was the collapse of northern Iraq and fall of Mosul in June 2014 to the then triumphant ISIS that first brought Qurayshi to the attention of the Iraqi and coalition intelligence services, said Abu Sara. It was his Islamic ruling on how to treat the recently captured Yazidi religious minority that made him stand apart, even amid the vicious public bloodletting that ISIS inflicted on captured Iraqis loyal to the government.
“When Sinjar fell [in August 2014], and the Yazidi genocide began, [Qurayshi] produced a ruling for Baghdadi that said it was Islamic to enslave and rape Yazidi women. [Qurayshi] wanted to include Christians, Shiite… the foreign fighters, who were all looking for wives, supported him. But the Iraqis [in ISIS] said no because of fears about Iraqi tribal revenge, because of course they believed the Shiite and Americans would rape Sunni Iraqi women in revenge.”
Using common Islamic doctrine that Christians and Shiite were monotheists and thus worthy of some protection, Baghdadi allowed Qurayshi to issue the ruling about Yazidis, who are considered total infidels and lack the complex web of protection offered by Iraqi tribal marriage. Tens of thousands of Yazidis were murdered, raped, or enslaved by ISIS in the collapse of Sinjar.
“I read the ruling and it was completely haram and I am no [scholar],” said Abu Marwan, a Syrian jihadist fighter whose rebel unit became part of ISIS in 2013. “I had already quit this Iraqi gang called Daesh before the Sinjar operation. I knew this group was Satanic before but they made slaves of women and [Qurayshi’s] name was on the ruling next to Baghdadi’s.”
It was that personal role in the massacres and genocide that brought him to the attention of Iraqis and the US-led coalition of special operations troops, said a coalition official under condition of strict anonymity.
US troops on Thursday used a well established policy of Tactical Call-Out. Since the early days of the Iraq war, US special operations troops have generally preferred to surround a target and call for its occupants to surrender before eventually destroying the building with an air strike or heavy weapons because they suffered heavy casualties in traditional raids because of suicide vests and boobytrapped homes.
“It’s true that doing a raid and using the [Tactical Call-Out] is the best way to prevent civilian casualties so the president is absolutely telling the truth,” said the official
ISIS commanders and their wives often sleep in explosive vests, have rigged buildings to explode if attacked, and sometimes build fortified bunkers inside the home. After sustaining high casualties attempting to storm such houses, US and UK forces adopted the new tactic around 2007.
“To be blunt this was a family where maybe both parents raised the family while wearing explosive suicide vests and there’s really only so much you can do to keep children safe in that sort of environment,” said the official, referring to consistent reports that either Qurayshi or one of his wives detonated a vest during the operation.
“So it was a long shot but I won’t lie that maybe there was some extra motivation to get this one alive to be put on trial for the Yazidi genocide,” said the official. “I am not fully briefed and I doubt anyone thought they had a good chance to take him alive, that's not how these guys go out…. but it would have been nice to see this asshole in a courtroom.”