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Isis loses its leader

Isis loses its leader


Last week the Isis leader was killed during a raid on his hideout in Syria. What will his death do to the strength of the terrorist group he once led?

Claudia Williams, narrating:

Hello, I’m Claudia, and this is the Sensemaker. 

One story, everyday, to make sense of the world.

Today: the death of the Isis leader and what it tells us about the state of the group he ran. 


[Helicopter drone]

On Wednesday night, in the town of Atmeh in Idlib – in Syria – residents woke to the steady hum of helicopters overhead.

Then, through the dark, came a warning:

[Sound of loudspeaker]

Soldiers had surrounded an apartment building in the town. Over a loudspeaker, they ordered its residents to leave their homes.

One family fled. Soon afterwards, a bomb-blast tore through the building’s third floor. 

US special forces stormed what was left of the block, firing on Isis supporters who had stayed inside.

This was a targeted raid and the Americans were looking for someone…

Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi. The most senior leader in the Islamic State group. 

But that explosion on the third floor killed him. He blew himself up before he could be captured.  


Abu Ibrahim al-Quraishi had been in charge of Isis since 2019 – but he’d been with the militant group from the beginning of its rise. 

He helped the former leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, take control of Mosul in Iraq in 2014, turning it into a major Isis stronghold. 

The United States says that he was involved in some of the worst atrocities Isis committed in Iraq: 

“He was the driving force behind the genocide of the Yazidi people  in north western Iraq in 2014. We all remember the gut-wrenching stories mass slaughters that wiped out entire villages thousands of women and young girls sold into slavery, rape used as a weapon of war.”

Joe Biden, CNBC

Over the years, he rose through the ranks of the organisation

“Al-Qurayshi became a senior Isis leader in 2014, and took over in 2019 from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi after he killed himself in a U.S. raid…”

PBS News

Abu Ibrahim Al-Qurayshi became leader of ISIS as the power of the Islamic State group was waning. 

Forces opposed to Isis, including a military coalition led by the United States, had fought bitterly to shrink the territory it held in Iraq and Syria. 

At the height of its  power in 2014, Isis controlled an area of land as large as the United Kingdom.

By the time Al-Qurayshi rose to power, the group had lost all of its territory, and their fighting force was weak: in Syria, around 9,000 Isis fighters had been captured by Syrian Democratic Forces. Thousands more were dead. 

So Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi’s mission as leader was to rebuild the group, quietly and covertly – and wait for an opportunity to stage a comeback. 


Not very much is known about Al-Qurayshi. 

He was a shadowy figure. In the hopes of avoiding detection by international forces he kept a low profile:

He never broadcast any messages to his followers, or appeared on TV. There aren’t even that many photos of him. 

In the last few months, he hardly left the apartment block he was living in. He communicated with the outside world through a few loyal messengers. 

But what we do know is that, under his leadership, Isis fighters have been carrying out deadly attacks and bombings across Iraq and Syria. 

And now, the group has lost its second leader in just over two years. 

But what does his death really mean in the fight to defeat the terror group? 


“Last night’s operation took a major terrorist leader off the battlefield and has sent a strong message to terrorists around the world we will come after you and find you.”

Joe Biden, CNBC

The operation to take out Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi was hailed as a success by US President Joe Biden.

He had ordered the raid on the apartment block and watched the operation unfold from the Situation Room in the White House. 

And what he said in his speech afterwards is true, Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi certainly was a powerful terrorist leader. 

But some experts are sceptical about how much of an impact al-Qurayshi’s death will have on Isis. Here’s what Charles Lister, a counter-terrorism expert at the Middle East Insitutue, had to say in a conversation with NPR: 

“They don’t need a senior leader to be commanding, you know, basic day-to-day operations as a kind of guerrilla insurgency. So no, ultimately, I don’t think this is a big game changer.
It certainly is a big blow to Isis morale in Syria and Iraq but also internationally. And that shouldn’t be discounted, but I can’t see it having a really significant impact on ISIS’ sort of day-to-day operations.”

Charles Lister, NPR

Isis is really fragmented now. 

There are lots of splinter groups with their own commanders, leading smaller terrorist insurgencies in places like Afghanistan, Mozambique and parts of West Africa. 

There just isn’t the same central structure of control now that Isis has lost so much ground and so much power.

But the organisation has adapted to its new circumstances… and it’s still incredibly dangerous. 

In 2021 there were hundreds of attacks attributed to Isis in at least half a dozen countries. 

And it seems like the group had been gathering strength…

Last month, Isis fighters staged the biggest attack that we’ve seen in years.  

They raided a Syrian prison where thousands of suspected militants were being held, and tried to help them escape. 

“The so-called Islamic State has launched the largest scale attack in Syria since it was defeated there in 2019. Their target: a prison holding jihadists in the northeast.”

DW News

That attack was stopped by Syrian and Kurdish forces, with support from the British and the Americans too. 

But it took more than a week to defeat the Isis fighters and it was a really worrying sign that the group is on the ascent once again. 

Killing off the leader of Isis might be a symbolic victory, but the threat from the terror group is very much alive.  

Today’s story was written and produced by Ella Hill.