How Did the Islamic State Pick Its New Leader?

The world’s most wanted man, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, may be dead at the paws of Conan the Hero Dog, but the ISIS crisis isn’t over.

Just three days after the killing of the so-called Islamic State’s leader, the group issued a statement announcing the name of his successor as Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurashi. Like his predecessor, he assumed the title of caliph, or successor to the Prophet Mohammed. In other words, he sees himself as the legitimate ruler of all Muslims—a claim that most of the world’s 1.8 billion Islamic faithful will find either deeply offensive or hilariously corny, but that the Islamic State cult’s own members are deathly serious bout.

(An unofficial English translation has been posted online by Aymenn al-Tamimi, a British-Iraqi expert on the Islamic State.)

So who is the new guy? The short answer is: we don’t know. Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurashi is a nom de guerre, where the last two names are intended to signal ancestry in the prophet’s family and, more importantly, membership of his Qureish tribe. Most Muslim scholars have viewed Qureish ancestry as a necessary qualification to become caliph.

There’s a decent chance that Abu Ibrahim is an Iraqi, since most of the group’s top leaders have been from Iraq and since the statement mentions that he fought the United States in the past—but it isn’t necessarily so.

In any case, journalists, analysts, experts, and any number of intelligence services are currently hard at work trying to match these details with known Islamic State leaders, who are known to use multiple noms de guerre. We’ll know sooner or later, and perhaps the mystery has already been solved: “ISIS has a new leader. We know exactly who he is!” tweeted U.S. President Donald Trump on November 1.

The ‘Islamic’ in ‘Islamic State’

Interestingly, the statement read by the Islamic State’s new spokesperson, one Abu Hamzah al-Qurashi, also gave some clues as to how Abu Ibrahim was appointed—or at the very least, how the group wants us to believe his appointment happened.

As a fundamentalist cult whose entire self-image is based on the idea that it is, in fact, a theocratic nation led by a caliph, the Islamic State needs to take historical precedent very seriously.

Sure enough, Abu Hamzah made a point of clarifying that Abu Ibrahim’s succession had taken place in accordance with “the tradition [Sunnah] of the Noble Companions.” The prophet’s companions, known in Arabic as the Sahaba, are the men and women who joined Islam while the prophet was still alive, under his leadership. They are seen as exemplary Muslims, uncorrupted by later distortions of the faith.

As concerns the institution of the caliphate, Sunni Muslims reserve particular veneration for the first four caliphs (632-661 CE), who are collectively known as the Rashidoun, or “the rightly-guided.”

Looking at their early and ideal models of transition, several different methods were in fact used.

The first caliph, Abu Bakr, was elected upon Mohammad’s death in 632 CE, in the absence of clear instructions from the prophet. However, Abu Bakr appointed his own successor, Omar, while he was still alive. As for Omar, he handled the succession issue by establishing a committee tasked with choosing a third caliph on his death—they chose Othman. When Othman was murdered, the fourth rightly-guided caliph, Ali, arrived to power amid internal conflict through a convoluted process that involved rallying supporters to his side.

These events are of course the subject of an enormous amount of scholarship and studies, and their details and nuances have been debated among Muslims for more than a thousand years. But the very short version is this: there was no single method for how to select a new caliph in early Islam, with rightly-guided caliphs having come to power both through election and direct appointment by their predecessor.

The Shoura Council Decided

The October 31 statement by Abu Hamzah al-Qurashi seems to be suggesting the choice of Abu Ibrahim as Islamic State caliph involved something of a combined method, but that ultimately the decision rested with the Shoura Council.

Abu Hamzah says the Islamic State’s Shoura Council—its top advisory and governance body—convened immediately upon confirmation of Baghdadi’s death to organize the transition. Given the security conditions in Syria and Iraq, that’s remarkable in itself. It would be an even bigger feat if representatives of far-flung Islamic State “provinces” in the Russian Caucasus, Afghanistan, or West Africa also sit on the council. On the other hand, the statement doesn’t specify that the Shoura Council convened in a physical meeting, so maybe they just posted 👍s in a chat group.

Abu Hamzah’s statement goes on to say that the “Sheikhs of the Mujahedin”—which, in this context, likely just means the Shoura members themselves—mutually agreed to pledge allegiance to Abu Ibrahim. The word he uses is tawafaqa, which suggests a broad consensus, though it doesn’t necessarily mean unanimity.

Moreover, Abu Hamzah claims that the Shoura Council’s decision was taken “after consulting with their brothers and [after] working in accordance with the testament of the caliph of the Muslims, may God accept him.”

The “brothers” in question are most likely Islamic State members outside the council, such as senior commanders and scholars whose views must be taken into account. The “caliph of the Muslims,” in this case, is Baghdadi, and the word translated here as “testament” is wasiyya.

Baghdadi’s Testament

Tamimi’s English translation renders wasiyya as “counsel,” but “testament” or “will” seems like a more reasonable choice in the context of Baghdadi just having joined the choir invisible. That doesn’t necessarily imply a formal, written letter, however—it could refer to views and orders given by Baghdadi while he was still alive.

The line about Baghdadi’s testament has been highlighted by experts on Salafi-jihadism like Hassan Hassan and Sam Heller, since it suggests that the group had a pre-arranged mechanism for how to transition to a new leader. Planning its line of succession ahead of time would certainly make sense for a group with massive leadership turnover, and where member are bound together by personal pledges of allegiance to the top guy. Even so, this was the first public reference to instructions from Baghdadi.

On the other hand, the word testament doesn’t tell us much more than that Baghdadi had left some form of instruction behind. It may mean that he had specifically ordered that Abu Ibrahim should be the new caliph upon his death. It could also mean that he expressed a personal preference for Abu Ibrahim without actually selecting him, or that he left a shortlist of successors to choose from, or that he devised a system for how to select the new leader without specifically naming anyone—or some combination of the above.

It’s not obvious to what extent the Islamic State leadership would feel bound by Baghdadi’s decisions after his death, but Abu Hamzah does make clear that the group took Baghdadi’s will into account and worked according to it. Then again, he is just as careful to note that the Shoura Council consulted with “their brothers.”

What it all comes down to is that the decision ultimately rested with the members of the Islamic State’s Shoura Council. They took Baghdadi’s testament into account and they consulted with others, and then they confirmed Abu Ibrahim as the new caliph.

But that’s assuming that Abu Hamzah told the truth about how the appointment happened—and that is a big if. The Islamic State spokesperson may as well have tried to put a legalistic, pious gloss on a chaotic or corrupted process or even, in theory, to paper over a divisive internal power grab. For the moment, we just don’t know—and that is perhaps as far as we can get into the inner workings of the Islamic State without more information.

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Aron Lund

Aron Lund is a fellow at The Century Foundation. He is a Swedish writer on Middle Eastern affairs and has written extensively on Syrian politics.

One Response

  1. No no no. They just looked up in the roster for all the guys with “al-Hashimi al-Qurashi” as last names, I’m guessing that narrowed it down considerably. 🙂

    I’m teasing, of course! Very nice article, thank you.

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