By BASSEM MROUÉ
BEIRUT (AP) — The leader of the Islamic State group killed in an overnight US raid in northwestern Syria was largely a mystery, with almost no known photos, never appearing in public or in group videos.
He met his end in the same rebel-held province of Idlib where his predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was hunted down by the Americans more than two years ago, some distance from the main theaters of the eastern Syria and Iraq where the group once held large swaths of territory in a self-declared “caliphate”.
A veteran activist since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, he took the name Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi when he assumed command of ISIS following the death of al-Baghdadi in the raid of October 2019. It was up to him to lead the remnants of the group as they regrouped after the fall of their caliphate and moved underground to lead an insurgency in Iraq and Syria.
His death comes as IS militants, after years of low-level ambushes, had begun to carry out bolder and more publicized attacks. Last month, IS raided a prison in northeast Syria to free imprisoned comrades, leading to a 10-day battle with Kurdish-led forces that left some 500 people dead.
President Joe Biden has said al-Qurayshi was directly responsible for the prison strike, as well as the mass killings of the Yazidi people in Iraq in 2014.
“He was responsible for the recent brutal attack on a prison in northeast Syria… He was the driving force behind the genocide of the Yazidi people,” Biden said Thursday. “We all remember the harrowing stories, the massacres that left entire villages, thousands of women and young girls sold into slavery, rape used as a weapon of war.”
It is unclear whether al-Qurayshi’s death will break the group’s momentum.
His real name was Amir Mohammed Saeed Abdul-Rahman al-Mawla, an Iraqi in his 40s, born in 1976 and believed to be an ethnic Turkman from the city of Tel Afar in northern Iraq. He held a degree in Islamic law from the University of Mosul.
His adoption of the nickname al-Qurayshi when he became the “caliph” of IS suggested that he, like his predecessor, claimed ties to the tribe of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.
Like his predecessor – who was killed in the village of Barisha just about 24 kilometers away – al-Qurayshi spent his last days in Idlib province, an area held by insurgent groups hostile to IS.
He resided in a three-storey house in the town of Atmeh, near the border with Turkey. Thursday morning’s raid on the home killed him and 12 others, including four women and six children, according to first responders.
After the raid, few people in Atmeh knew who the family renting the house was. Reporters on the site quoted neighbors as saying the man who lived on the top floor with his family had previously identified himself as Abu Ahmad, a war-displaced Syrian from Aleppo province. Children’s toys, a cradle and religious books, including a biography of the Prophet Muhammad, were found in the bombed house.
Idlib province, the last major rebel stronghold in Syria, is home to 3 million people, many of whom have been displaced by the civil war, making it easier for foreigners to integrate. The house, surrounded by olive trees, appears to have been chosen by al-Qurayshi to be as far away from the eyes of onlookers as possible.
Around midnight Wednesday, helicopters landed in the area carrying US special forces and closed in on the house.
“If you don’t leave, we have orders. We will fire missiles at the house. There are drones above our heads,” a man speaking an Iraqi dialect was heard saying through a loudspeaker. An audio was broadcast on social networks.
An explosion shook the area later and knocked out much of the top floor.
Videos released by the opposition Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, showed a paramedic taking a little girl from the house to an ambulance. A photo of a girl circulated on social media later showing a girl who appeared to be around five years old with blood on her face.
“They killed my mother and my father,” the young girl told the paramedics who rescued her.
It was unclear if the girl was al-Qurayshi’s daughter.
Al-Arabiya TV said three of the four women who were killed in the raid could be the wives of the extremist leader. It is common for members of an extremist group to be married to no more than four wives, which is permitted by Muslim tradition.
Since taking command of ISIS, al-Qurayshi has topped the list of people wanted by the United States and other regional governments fighting extremists. He did not appear in public and rarely released audio recordings. His influence and day-to-day involvement in the group’s operations are unknown and he has no known successor.
On March 18, 2020, the State Department listed al-Qurayshi as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist. A few months later, the United States doubled its reward to $10 million for information leading to his identification or location. Al-Qurayshi was also known by the other two nom de guerre, Abu Omar al-Turkmani and Abdullah Qaradash.
The US Treasury Department said al-Qurayshi helped lead and justify the abduction, massacre and trafficking of members of Iraq’s Yezidi religious minority and oversees the group’s global operations. Thousands of Yazidi men belonging to the group have been killed and thousands of women taken as slaves, in what rights groups consider a crime of genocide.
Al-Qurayshi began his activism shortly after former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was ousted from power. A year after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, al-Qurayshi joined al-Qaeda in Iraq, led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Al-Qurayshi was arrested by US troops in Mosul in 2004, where he was held for two years. While imprisoned, he became al-Baghdadi’s main security henchman.
After al-Zarqawi was killed in a US strike in 2006, al-Qurayshi became a senior figure in the successor group to al-Qaeda affiliate Islamic State in Iraq, which under al-Baghdadi transformed into the Islamic State group.
When ISIS overran much of northern and eastern Syria and northern Iraq and declared its caliphate in 2014, al-Qurayshi became a senior leader. As the group’s caliphate crumbled in the years-long war with a US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria, it went underground.