The Killing of the ISIS Leader and Manipulation of Islamic Traditions

May 7, 2023
by Enes Esen, published on 7 Mei 2023
The Killing of the ISIS Leader and Manipulation of Islamic Traditions

ISIS leader Abu Hussein al-Quraishi was killed by Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT) in northern Syria on April 29, according to President Erdoğan. Although ISIS or other Western governments did not confirm this yet, it would not be surprising to hear of an ISIS leader being killed in a region within the Turkish sphere of influence in Syria. The founder of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was also killed during a US military operation in the Idlib Province of northwestern Syria in October 2019. With the near-complete decimation of its senior figures in the last decade, it is unclear who will be the next leader of ISIS. Nevertheless, it is likely that the new leader of the terrorist organization will manipulate the history of Islam by adopting another alias, such as al-Quraishi, in order to confer legitimacy upon himself.

The reason why the last two ISIS leaders chose al-Quraishi as their nom de guerre lies in their attempt to derive legitimacy from the Islamic sacred books. Quraish (also spelled Quraysh, Kuraish, or Koreish) is the name of the tribe of the Prophet Muhammad. In a saying narrated in the most trustworthy hadith books, the Prophet Muhammad says, “The Caliphate belongs to the Quraish.” Some Islamic scholars considered it an eternal requirement in order to be a legitimate ruler in the Islamic world; others said it was a prophecy that came true but was not an ever-lasting requirement for Muslim rulers. The latter pointed out the fact that the Rashidun Caliphs (632-661), the Umayyad caliphs (661–750), and the Abbasid caliphs (750 – 1258) all belonged to the Quraish tribe. After the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258, some members of the Abbasid dynasty settled in Cairo under the Mamelukes as caliphs with symbolic powers. Later on, the Islamic world did not challenge the legitimacy of the Turkish Khans, who assumed the office of the caliphate when the Ottomans conquered Egypt in 1517. The caliphate was abolished by the secular leadership of the new Turkish Republic in 1924.

The lack of the caliphate is a symbol of the disarray of the Islamic world for some Muslims. Nonetheless, there was no political entity that would seriously consider using this title given the fact that this would mean at least universal spiritual leadership of the Muslims, if not a political one. Even the rulers, who can rightfully trace their ancestry back to the prophet Muhammad, such as in Morocco or Jordan, do not call themselves caliphs. The only modern political entity which would dare to do so is ISIS, a terrorist organization that lacks credentials but strives for legitimacy. 

In this context, the founder of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was born Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim Ali Muhammad al-Badri. He claimed to descend from the prophet Muhammad, and his alias Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was likely to be chosen after the first caliph of Islam, Abu Bakr (died in 634), who initiated the office of the caliphate. Al-Baghdadi was reviving the caliphate, so why not name himself after the first caliph of Islam, so revered in the Sunni world? And Al-Baghdadi literally means “from Baghdad.” In other words, he was Abu Bakr from the city of Baghdad. 

The following ISIS leaders, al-Quraishis, also do not bear their real names. For instance, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Quraishi (killed by the Free Syrian Army in October 2022 in Syria's Daraa province) was probably born into an Iraqi Turkmen family in northern Iraq as Amir Muhammed Abdul Rahman al-Mawli al-Salbi. We do not know much about Abu Hussein al-Quraishi, who succeeded the previous “al-Quraishi”. Nonetheless, it is highly unlikely that they actually belong to the Quraish tribe. 

In the same vein, the infamous black flag of ISIS features the figure on the ring of the Prophet Muhammed. The ring was passed onto the caliphs who succeeded him but was lost during the reign of Uthman (644-656). As a ring of symbolic power, it represents the rule of a caliph. The color black is also a reference to another hadith: “Then the black banners will come from the east… When you see them, then pledge your allegiance to them even if you have to crawl over the snow, for that is the caliph of Allah: the Mahdi." Indeed when the Abbasids revolted against and overthrew the Umayyads, they raised black banners in modern-day Iran, i.e., east of the Islamic realm of that time. By making the background of its flag black, ISIS intended to convey the message that a new caliphate with universal claims had emerged again. 

It is worth noting that the vast majority of Muslim scholars and leaders reject ISIS's claims of legitimacy and denounce their violent tactics as contrary to the principles of Islam. Nonetheless, ISIS persists as a grave danger, and the demise of its leaders does not guarantee the withering of the group's capability to carry out terrorist attacks. Therefore, governments and international organizations must stay alert and adopt effective strategies to counter terrorism and forestall the radicalization of individuals who may be vulnerable to extremist propaganda.

On the other hand, the death of the latest ISIS leader needs to be confirmed with methods such as a DNA test since there are reports indicating that ISIS is faking the death of some of its senior officers to shield them from getting targeted. This is why one needs more than a picture of a dead body or intelligence reports to ensure the identity. In any case, the next time ISIS announces its new leader - and it will not be long, given the survival rate of its leaders- chances are high that his alias will be based again on the manipulation of Islamic traditions to derive legitimacy.

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